If you're not in SEO, you may not fully understand all these accusations against Google for practicing anticompetitive/monopolistic tactics. My goal with this article is not to break open a case or to make accusations.
My goals are to teach some SEO, highlight how competitive certain industries can be, and share examples of where Google seems to be taking liberties. On with it—here's a breakdown of three core concerns people have with Google's practices: ⬇️ ⬇️
CONCERN 1️⃣: Ranking/SERP Placement
Below is an image that represents a SERP: Search Engine Results Page (displayed beautifully by Ahrefs). See that list of websites below the squiggly chart? If you type "cloud" into Google, you'll see those websites pop up.
This chart shows the volatility of a SERP—websites are constantly moving up and down as they compete to get to the top (the top of the chart represents the top of the Google searches—rank 1). SEO is extremely competitive and always changing. (Check out Investopedia—the yellow line—which has bounced all over the place trying to get to the "top" or rank 1.)
But notice the light blue line at the top? That's Google. "cloud.google.com" to be specific. Google's never moved from "Rank 1"—they're not subject to their own algorithm changes. They don't have to play the game. From experience, the other players are spending millions on SEO—and Google doesn't have to because...they own Google.
But who cares—there are more search queries than ever, right? True. Plenty of search to go around to all the top-10 results, right? Eh, sort of true. A study from almost 3 years ago (performed by Brian Dean and his team at Backlinko [acquired by SEMrush]) showed that the first result in Google’s organic search results has an average click-through rate of ~32%. On average, the second result gets ~25%, the third ~19% and then it drops off after that. If you're not in the top-3 positions, you're seeing comparatively far less traffic. And this was 3 years ago! (The first spot of Google gets 10x the clicks of the tenth spot.)
Know what's even crazier? The brilliant folks over at Sparktoro revealed that ~65% of all searches on Google don't result in a click at all. (The click-through rate numbers above are percentages of a small fraction of actual searches). Read it again: 65% of searches on Google don't result in a click!
This is so wild (with research so revealing) that it made it onto Last Week Tonight on Sunday night:
Google is providing answers to users' questions without them having to actually visit websites. In other words, Google is keeping control (and more profit than ever) from the answers to your questions without having to pass on benefits to the sources of information—the websites who painstakingly wrote about great content and optimized it for Search.
The question of monopolistic ambiguity is not just: Why would we use anything but Google for everything? The deeper question becomes: why would we need the actual info beyond the results page of a Google Search? And what does that mean for the actual builders of the internet—those creating the content?
CONCERN 2️⃣: SERP "Real Estate"
You'll notice that every time you Google something, there's a bunch of stuff changing—sometimes you get photos, sometimes a map, sometimes a bunch of products. Google caters this experience depending on what sort of thing you're searching for. That's good, right? A unique experience for each unique query.
And when you search the name of a company (take Salesforce, for example), you get a unique experience catered to you:
Look at all that "SERP real estate" Salesforce gets. They have all these "sitelinks" to specific pages ("Login," "Careers," "CRM solution"), they've got a search bar, and right below this, they've got more of their own pages lining up search results. And rightfully so, they're Salesforce—they should own their own name.
But let's see what Google does with "cloud":
Google gives itself all the upgrades and hookups here and maybe they justify it because they're "cloud.google.com". But if Google is the company and "Cloud" is the product, what make them any different than Cloudflare and Cloudflare's Cloud product?
We can expect that the click-through rate for this first spot (with all that real estate Google's giving itself) is much higher than the average 32% from the Backlinko study.
CONCERN 3️⃣: Ads Restriction
Finally, where are the ads? Looking up at the results for "cloud", there's something missing—no ads. This is pretty rare considering ~95% of all search advertising is owned by Google. What gives? Why isn't Google pulling that ad revenue in for "cloud?"
A large chunk of 97th Floor's clientele is in the highly technical B2B space where the competition is insanely cutthroat and expensive (think Symantec and Solarwinds, for example). Ads for a keyword like "cyber security" for example would cost ~$25 per click—and there are around 65,000 searches for that keyword per month. Google's ad revenue adds up quickly!
Google could be rolling in the dough charging on a per-click basis for a keyword like "cloud". Orrrrrr, they could just restrict ads altogether ensuring the clicks go straight to them, which seems to be what's going on in the case of "cloud."
Dangerous monopoly or just really smart business?
The businessman in me says that Google's moves here make complete sense—why wouldn't they use their product that they've spent decades and (probably) billions of dollars on to cross-promote their other offerings so that they can keep producing products and services that help people find what they're looking for. Who wouldn't do that? As advertisers, we know what we're doing when we run ads on Google—we're renting space on their platform and we do it because (if done right) we know we're going to turn that investment into growth.
On the other hand, there's a reason we have anti-trust laws and there's plenty of recent proof that data strongholds like Google have too much power—and power that can do harm. The trends we're seeing do cause concern.
Regardless of your beliefs, it's important to understand the power Google has and the way that power is being used. And for other Marketers like me, two final takeaways:
- Search is never going away. It's only going to keep growing. Ignoring search is like ignoring your 401K—the best time to double-down on your investment will always be yesterday. (Especially business looking to survive/even grow through times of recession.)
- Search is more tricky and more competitive than ever. Placing your eggs solely in this one basket will set you up for a rough rollercoaster ride. If your primary focus has been search, now is the time to sync up strategies across a diverse group of channels and invest in Marketers who lean more creative, audience-obsessed and brand-focused.