Commentary

If Antitrust Claimed Google Maps, The Company Might Simply Recreate It

After watching Netflix’s popular documentary The Social Dilemma, you may be convinced that Google and Facebook need to be broken up. Although it's not a solution advocated in the film, it’s subtext. By the same token, it’s unlikely to happen.

Many Republicans and Democrats in Congress tend to agree that big tech companies, including Amazon and Apple, have become anticompetitive. The Justice Department (DOJ), Federal Trade Commission and State Attorneys General have been coordinating their myriad antitrust investigations.

A formal DOJ action against Google could come as early as the end of this month.

Partly driven by electoral politics, this comes despite the fact that some career DOJ attorneys believe it’s premature, according to The New York Times.

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There are also a range of private antitrust claims being litigated against these companies. Epic Games v. Apple is one such recent example.

When it inevitably comes, the United States vs. Google will be the most high-profile antitrust action since the United States vs. Microsoft in the late 1990s. In that case, the software giant was found to have abused its market power.

There was an order to split the company in two. However, the Bush administration, when it took over in early 2001, declined to pursue that remedy.

While a Biden administration is something of a wild card, it’s unlikely that Google would be broken up, even assuming a finding the company had violated antitrust law. But for the sake of our thought experiment, let’s assume “break Google up” was the order. What would that look like and how might it impact local search in particular?

Google acquisitions such as DoubleClick, Waze and Nest -- even Android -- could be “unwound.” These entities would then become separate companies. That also potentially holds true for YouTube and Maps.

Maps is a bit more difficult because it’s deeply integrated into Google Search and Android. This is one of the problems, Google’s critics say --  in local search Google is harming competition by “favoring” its own Maps content.

If Google Maps were severed from its parent, there would be an immediate impact.Because mapping and local search are so central to the mobile user experience, Google would feel compelled to develop a new in-house capability or substitute Waze (if not itself unwound) as its mapping platform. The former Google Maps would almost certainly become less visible in search results, replaced by listings and pages from Waze.

If Google was compelled to divest both Maps and Waze, which is hard to imagine, it would immediately need to buy another mapping platform – unless it was legally prohibited from doing so. That could be Here.com (owned by a consortium of German automakers), Mapquest (owned by System1), OpenStreetMap or any of a number of less “mature” European mapping companies.

In the same way that Mapquest -- the former number one -- suffered a slow decline at the hands of Google Maps appearing at the top of search results, the former Google Maps would probably see similar erosion. That is, unless the newly independent company could maintain organic search visibility and drive adoption through its mobile app or new partnerships. (The loss of the Google brand would also be significant.)

The uncoupling of Google Maps from Google the mothership would probably make local search somewhat more competitive, at least in the beginning.

However, whatever alternative property Google replaced it with, unless it was terrible, would likely recapture the dominant position in one or two years -- simply because of the power of ranking at the top of Google search results.  

There is another unlikely scenario in which Google Maps is sold to another competitor. But that doesn’t significantly impact the discussion. 

As a practical matter, it’s highly improbable that Google would be broken up, or that it would lose both Maps and Waze.

Even if one of those circumstances occurred, it probably would only have a limited and temporary effect on the local search market, because of the dominance of Google search itself.  

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