Unpacking the Google Antitrust Case
On Tuesday, October 20, 2020, it finally happened: Google was hit with an antitrust case.
The official line from the Justice Department’s filing is that the search giant has “unlawfully maintain[ed] monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising, and general search text advertising in the United States through anticompetitive and exclusionary practices.”
Much of the punditry around this suit has followed the same threads: the political motivations of the Department of Justice, the filing date occurring two weeks before the 2020 general election, and bipartisan skepticism of Big Tech. Whatever the angle, all opinion pieces exhibited a total lack of surprise.
This was inevitable.
From its garage startup beginnings over two decades ago, Google evolved to become a primary conduit for the flow of information. In that time, we’ve witnessed the decline of print media, the consolidation of media ownership, widespread smartphone adoption, global social media integration, and the rise of meme culture and disinformation.
Currently, Google captures around 81% of all general search queries in the United States on desktop and 94% on mobile. Especially now in the isolating times of a global pandemic, Google more than any other outlet serves as the gatekeeper for our understanding of reality – or at least how we choose to perceive it.
If anything, the true surprise is that it took this long for Google to have to face the music. Smartphones and voice command technology blurred the line between digital and everyday life. And Google’s influence grew exponentially, transforming into an ecosystem of interconnected services. Since a full list of its offerings would double the length of this article, suffice to say the company exists nearly everywhere.
The antitrust lawsuit was inevitable because Google’s unchecked growth has seized control of communication and consolidated it under one brand.
Google is unavoidable.
Google may defend its position by asserting that consumers are free to use competing services to find the information they seek, and there is some validity to that argument. But digital professionals know just how difficult it is to avoid the Google panopticon.
Even if one sidesteps its services, Google remains ubiquitous. “Sign-in with Google” callouts and behavior tracking via the free Google Analytics platform mean your every action is being recorded and aggregated. This data is then used to inform your future browsing experiences, bid costs in digital advertising, and overall adjustments to Google services.
Call it data-mining. Call it dystopian. These days, I just call it modern marketing.
It’s really about Big Data.
The Google antitrust case signifies an attempt by governing forces to play catch up with Big Data and its influence. The social and ecommerce goliaths Facebook and Amazon could just as easily serve as the posterchildren for digital monopolies.
With documentaries like The Social Dilemma kicking up dust, change is in the air. Laypeople are beginning to question the hidden costs of instant gratification and grasp the implications of corporate data aggregation.
In that light, the lawsuit is an exercise in confronting the immense power held by Big Data and determining as a society who controls the flow of information that impacts our decision making.
Takeaways from U.S. v. Microsoft Corp.
The 2001 Microsoft antitrust suit serves as a modern point of comparison for Google’s current predicament. At the time, Microsoft enjoyed about a 97% market share of all computing devices, similar to Google’s position within its own space.
Skipping the minutiae, the suit ultimately resulted in a settlement that required Microsoft to lift some barriers to third-party software and appoint a panel of three people with full access to Microsoft’s systems and source code. This agreement, however, expired in under a decade. At the time, many viewed the outcome as little more than a slap on the wrist.
In practical effect, the settlement provided newcomers like Google space to grow and existing players like Apple a shot at direct competition. The subsequent decade saw both Google’s rise to prominence in Search and Apple’s resurgence with the release of Mac OS X and the iPod. By 2012, Microsoft’s market share had dipped to 20%, sending the brand on a long journey to regain its footing (currently at roughly 88% market share).
No matter the outcome, an antitrust lawsuit for a major tech player is disruptive. And disruption yields change – both for the corporation in question and the industry at large.
In many ways, Google is better positioned to withstand antitrust scrutiny than Microsoft was. By restructuring itself as a subsidiary of its Alphabet parent company in 2015, Google may make a compelling argument that little reason exists for a court ordered breakup. The DOJ would also have to prove harm, which could be difficult. Afterall, Google is being sued for monopolistic practices, not pervasive data collection.
Ramifications for Search
Regardless of its outcome, the antitrust case will likely shake up the marketing world considerably. Intentionally or not, it will shed light on Google’s operational practices, which may play poorly in the court of public opinion. As consumers grow suspicious of Big Data, we may hear louder calls for an American version of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Within Search specifically, Google historically set the pace for algorithmic advances and digital innovation. In SEO, we typically look to Google first for Organic Search compliance guidelines. If display titles in Google results have a 600-pixel width limit and Bing announces it will support a 700-pixel width limit, we’ll still keep titles under 600 pixels. Google’s domination of the landscape largely dictates the decisions of Search marketers, creating a Google-to-marketer-to-Google feedback loop that may become vulnerable.
A disruption caused by the antitrust case – even just Google taking its eye off the ball momentarily – could create the room needed for an intrepid competitor to unleash the next major advancement and break Google’s feedback loop.
As Google defends against feds at the front door and competition at the back, three paths lie ahead for the business: (1) Google manages to cement its dominance, (2) it cedes territory to competitors, or (3) a mixed bag in which Google stays in the lead but at substantial cost. Among its competitors, the starter pistol has been fired in the race to innovate.
Brace for and embrace change.
Google’s antitrust woes remind us how quickly fortunes can turn, especially in changing times. As society grows increasingly savvy to data collection, divided by information bubbles, and aware of the influence of Big Tech, disruption may be welcome.
For marketing agencies, your clients will continue to need your guidance as the digital landscape shifts underfoot. So sharpen your skill sets, keep yourself current, and embrace the unknown. For those of us without Google employee tags, change may be a good thing.