(This post originally appeared on The Hill)
Peter Thiel has called Google a monopoly. President Trump has accused the company of influencing elections. Congress has begun hearings on the search giant’s alleged anti-trust activities. Now the Justice Department is launching its own investigations.
Is Google a harmful monopoly? To get your answer, you didn’t have to go any further than MozCon.
That’s the name of an annual conference by Moz, a company that provides tools, consulting and other educational resources for professionals in the vast industry of internet search. If you’re in the world of search engine optimization – or SEO – then this is a must-attend conference. I attended the event last month in Seattle so that I could learn more to help my company’s SEO. I walked away having learned something else, and more important: that Google is a monopoly.
It’s true. There were dozens of super-smart, experienced presenters offering their advice to more than a thousand attendees, and yet one theme kept repeating itself. Presenter after presenter, after sharing their insights and case studies and data and stories, would ultimately hold up their hands and say something like “…and that’s my best guess of what Google’s doing.”
A few – and I mean a few really smart ones – said that they oftentimes feel clueless when it comes to Google. I heard the phrase “imposter syndrome” mentioned more than a few times.
Keep in mind: Some of the world’s largest companies and institutions rely on these experts and their firms for their recommendations, methodologies and best practices that will get their billion-dollar brands noticed. And yet, everyone’s just trying to answer one question: what does Google want? If the executives at the biggest firms in the world, and the agencies working for them, are banging their heads against the wall, what does that mean for small and medium sized companies like mine?
“Google has all the power when it comes to SEO and SMBs,” Moz CEO Sarah Bird told me. “They set the terms of engagement and they are the only search game in town that matters. But they also provide all the benefit; Google search is the most powerful customer acquisition channel ever experienced by mankind. So, it’s complicated.”
I agree Google search is a powerful acquisition tool. Which I think underscores my position that such power should not be wielded by a single company. Today everyone needs search. Every company needs a way to be found online, and the only way is down Google Avenue. Sure you can argue that Google competes with Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and other tech giants. But not really. Not when it comes to search.
This is a monopoly that’s killing small businesses, and it needs to be broken up. According to Bird, Google and its online properties like YouTube, Gmail and Chrome control close to 95 percent of the search going on in this world. That’s trillions and trillions of potential revenues that rely on one company’s algorithms. And if the big brands can’t figure this stuff out, how in the world can a small business even consider it?
A small business can’t. It’s because the world of Google is rigged against us. We set up a budget “suggested” by Google that’s based on “recommendations” of keywords made by Google who then mysteriously displays our ads wherever Google chooses, which then drains our budget and then –p here’s the kicker – Google reports back to us how our money was spent…by Google…on clicks and views and other things that we have no way of validating. Unless we just believe…well…Google.
Not that some businesses haven’t succeeded from this. Or that there aren’t great consultants out there that can help increase the odds of success. But for most small businesses, the world of online advertising is a war zone and we’re fighting with water pistols.
Google has been trying to better educate small firms by touring the U.S. and conducting seminars. The company has also recently relaunched a website with small business “tools.” But these efforts fall far from their goal, and to me are just marketing gimmicks. They are a public relations move to superficially demonstrate that they’re trying to help smaller companies. They’re not.
The reality is that firms like mine don’t understand how all this works and need to pay experts. And unfortunately – at least by my experience at Moz – the experts are not only self-admitted “clueless imposters” but most are more concerned with devoting resources to their big clients as opposed to mom and pop.
“I think that Google’s earned their monopoly,” Wil Reynolds, the founder of search firm Seer Interactive and one of the speakers at MozCon, told me. “But they are definitely, in the search game, a monopoly. When you own the most popular browser and you also own the most popular search engine and YouTube and Gmail and G-Suite there are just so many easy ways that you can do things that really aren’t in the best interest of the customer.” Like maybe control search results to benefit your interests? Or your biggest paying clients?
So what’s the answer that would benefit businesses, both big and small? A good start would be to split up Google into smaller, independent companies that can’t so easily leverage each other’s data. Maybe from that point competitors in search can have a more equal playing field and offer more independent and accurate search options for the consumer, and better, easier-to-understand marketing opportunities for small businesses.
Let’s hope Washington does something, though. Otherwise I may be forced to go back to telemarketing!