In its case against Google, the Department of Justice claimed Google has for many years, “used anti competitive tactics to maintain and extend its monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising, and general search text advertising – the cornerstones of its empire”.
Its investigation cites emails where Google executives express concerns they could lose market share to search sites specialising in areas such as travel, warning “the risk is that Google is the go-to place for finding information only in cases where there is sufficiently low monetisation”. High margin sectors, like travel or hotels, could be seized by rivals unless Google built competing products.
It would be hard to argue that Google, with its investment and best-in-class engineers, has become a less effective search engine, but this relentless cross promotion has in some ways become “overbearing”, a former Google executive says.
“A search term can lead you to a map link that will give you a set of directions, but that might be exactly what the user is looking for,” says John Cawdery, now the chief executive of advertising giant Incubeta. “The converse is that it is slightly overbearing as it is only using Google’s products.”
A Google spokesman said: “This week, we took steps to further open our platform by offering a free option for hotels or travel sites to show booking links for specific dates of stay at a given property. Previously, only advertiser links would appear in this booking module on google.com/travel.”
Ironically, many of the companies who grumble about Google’s monopoly are some of Google’s top advertisers. Skift Research estimates that globally, the travel industry, including Expedia and Booking.com, spent around $16bn in advertising on Google in 2019.
Cawdery, who has worked across Google’s global advertising business, encourages brands to think carefully about the impact of spending its advertising dollars on Google as “there are other platforms”.
“Years ago, this wasn’t a discussion we were able to have because the technology wasn’t there and people were getting a far worse service as a result. So it kind of ebbs and flows and it really comes down to the bargain that the user is prepared to accept from the platform [Google].”
Google’s dominance over the open internet is not only frustrating for niche industries who claim it is infringing upon its business models, but Britons to whom “Googling” is an acceptable verb.
Over the years Google has gradually made it harder for consumers to click on links that take them off Google properties. Searches regularly display “snippets” of information, typically taken from a news article for which the publisher receives no compensation for, to keep users on the search engine.
“Google’s anti-competitive search manipulation practices have inflicted significant consumer harm,” says Shivaun Raff, cofounder of comparison site Foundem. “They have all-but-eradicated genuine comparison-shopping services from users’ search results and replaced them with pay-for-placement advertisements.”
Raff, who took Google on for destroying her business in a case that resulted in a £ 2.1bn fine from the European Union, says that unlike comparison shopping services, “Google’s ads prioritise the merchants willing to pay Google the most money for a click” and that “as a result, consumers are now paying more for their products and services than they need to. And the same logic holds true for travel search”.
A Google spokesman said: “People expect Google to give them the most relevant, high quality search results for their query. These can come from big established companies like Kayak, or smaller, independent businesses.
“When it comes to specialised searches about travel or local services, testing has consistently shown that people want more helpful information than just a link to another website, and that’s why we have developed new ways of displaying information, like showing booking options, maps, prices or pictures. Providing more relevant results like these creates more choice and competition, and generates billions of visits to sites across the web every day for free.”
As Google has grown to process more than 3.5bn searches per day, the company has developed an almost-bewildering amount of ways to show information. Everything from map results and videos show at the top of searches, pushing the company’s bread and butter of 10 blue links further down than ever before.