If Google loses the recent antitrust lawsuits that have been filed against the search engine giant, Google may decrease its ad placement frequency, advertisers may lose access to scalable advertising, while on the other hand, there may be new digital marketing opportunities, better user experiences, and more affordable advertising. What are the antitrust lawsuits about, and what could the outcome of the lawsuits mean for marketers?
The State Antitrust Lawsuits
The state antitrust lawsuits, led by eight states (Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah), were filed by 38 attorneys general on Dec. 17 of 2020, and allege that Google’s search results favor its own services over those of rival (vertical) search engines such as Yelp and Angie’s List, and claim that this has harmed those competitors, because if users are not able to find them through Google, they may be unable to find them in general. The states say that Google has made changes over time to how search query results appear with the goal of sending more users to Google’s own properties rather than its vertical competitors. The suit also alleges that Google used its dominance to become the default search engine on web browsers, smartphones, smart speakers, and connected cars.
Ashley Shuey, director of Media at Allen & Gerritsen, shared why she feels like Google is dominating the space. "As it stands, around 88% of all searches happen in Google, partially because of their contractual partnerships with other big tech brands, but also because their brand is now a verb used to describe the very act of generating an internet search query." It’d be very difficult to argue that Google is not the dominant search engine.
The lawsuit was filed one day after 10 other states accused Google of engaging in false, deceptive, or misleading acts through its Google Ads auction process. What this lawsuit alleges is that when a user visits a website or uses an app and they see an ad, there is a high probability that the advertiser used Google to purchase the ad placement, and the website or app publisher used Google to provide the ad space, and that both the advertiser and publisher used Google’s automated ad auction to make it happen. If this is the case, then Google represented both the buyer and seller in the exchange, and since they are the ones running the auction, there is a high potential for conflict of interest.
Additionally, several private publishers filed two antitrust lawsuits against Google in late December. The private lawsuits essentially state that Google is in violation of the Sherman Act by displaying monopolistic behavior through misuse of its digital ad sales.
The Federal Antitrust Lawsuit
The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) lawsuit, which was filed by the DOJ on behalf of 11 state attorneys general, and was later joined by California, implies that Google’s contract with other tech giants, including Apple, Samsung, Motorola, and LG, are exclusionary and were put in place with the goal of reinforcing Google’s search engine dominance on mobile devices at the expense of rivals such as Microsoft Bing and DuckDuckGo.
The lawsuit describes the lengths that Google has been going to protect its search engine monopoly, such as paying Apple $8 to $12 billion dollars a year in ad revenue to keep Google as the default search engine on the Safari operating system and iPhones. Chris Laan, founder of Designer Sheds, told CMSWire that “According to the DOJ, almost half of Google's search traffic comes from Apple devices, and they pay billions to Apple each year to stay the default browser. Just imagine if that were to change — that new search engine, be it Bing or DuckDuckGo or a new proprietary engine from Apple, would have profound effects on the way we approach digital marketing.”
The DOJ believes that if such a monopoly were not in place and rivals were provided more of an opportunity, there would be more innovations in search and consumers would benefit. In fact, the DOJ complaint is asking for a breakup or restructuring of the company, and court orders to stop the anti-competitive practices they described, but no monetary damages — so the likelihood of innovation is even greater.
Heather Logrippo, owner and founder of ExposeYourselfPR, a Boston-based marketing agency, said that restructuring is likely to impact the way Google sells ads. “Google may end up like cable companies. If you want to advertise nationally you will need to buy DMA’s and work with several different offices to get national coverage. There will be ad agencies that will assist in placing these buys so it will be less self-serve, for national Ad buys which will drive up the advertiser’s costs.”
The United States is not alone in its lawsuits against the search engine giant. In 2019, the European Commission fined Google $1.7 billion for what it termed "abusive online ad practices,” in which Google exploited its dominance by preventing its rivals from placing their search ads on third-party websites.
Additionally, it’s not just Google that is being investigated and taken to task for anti-competitive practices. The House antitrust panel also investigated Apple, Facebook and Amazon, and came to a similar conclusion about the tech giants. The U.S. House Judiciary Committee antitrust subcommittee’s report, which was released in October of 2020, is an extensive summary of the ways the antitrust panel alleges that Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon capitalize on and allegedly abuse their market dominance to benefit themselves.
The outcome of the lawsuits won’t be known for some time to come, as the presiding judge has said a trial isn’t likely to begin until September of 2023.
How Will It Affect Marketers?
Shuey suggested that if Google is forced to give up its market dominance, it could potentially cause fluctuation in pricing and increased competition in the marketplace as consumers move to alternate search engine options. "Marketers will have to be extra diligent about honing in on specific audiences and keyword content vs. casting a broad net and allowing the pay-per-click structure to cover potential waste."
Initially, the biggest impact will pertain to SEO. Currently, most brands optimize their websites for Google, and hardly pay attention to other search engines such as Bing or DuckDuckGo. If Google loses the lawsuit and other search engines have opportunities to be the default browser on mobile devices, PCs, laptops, etc., brands would have to optimize their sites for those other search engines as well. The other search engines will be using their own indexing algorithms which may differ greatly from Google’s, and they may have different rules for what is permitted and what is not. Google may change its own indexing algorithm as a result of the lawsuit as well, and those changes are likely to impact SEO and search query results, helping some businesses while hurting others.
Laan said that although a decision is likely years away, brands would do well to begin preparing now. “Many marketers still consider Google to be the only 'real' search engine — antitrust legislation could diminish this. Optimizing for Bing, DuckDuckGo, and even environmental search engines like Ekoru could become more necessary if Google's outsized dominance is diminished.” Much like those businesses that were already using remote workers when the pandemic hit, businesses that are already prepared will not suffer as much when changes occur as a result of the outcome of the suit.
The DOJ complaint stated that Google “has pushed the organic links further and further down the results page and featured more search advertising results.” This means that in spite of carefully crafted SEO and relevant content, brands are less likely to show up in the top search results, with the only alternative being paid Google ads so the brand shows up at the top as a paid advertiser. The implications of this complaint are that if Google loses the lawsuit, SEO and relevant content may once again be key to getting on the top of the search query results.
"Google has been notoriously secretive about the specifics of their algorithms, ad rankings and SEO. This lawsuit could force them to disclose the intricacies of those processes," said Shuey. "It’s possible that the Google algorithm will evolve to place a higher value to the importance of SEO as its newly empowered competitors flood the paid search space."
Another area that may be impacted if Google loses is that of scalable advertising. Currently, Google is the leader when it comes to advertising across channels, but there may be an increase in new advertising technologies. Additionally, the complexity and high cost of Google’s current ad auctions leave smaller businesses unable to compete.
Shuey said that given the omnichannel nature of business today, the antitrust lawsuits reiterate the importance of not relying on a one-channel strategy. “Diversifying your media will ensure your marketing dollars are working alongside one another for an integrated outcome. If the outcome of this lawsuit brings more contractual diversity, this approach will be more important than ever before," she explained.
Logrippo said that the changes to Google’s advertising model may end up being a positive change for smaller businesses. “The biggest barrier to entry for small businesses with Google is the complexity of running campaigns, so this is their opportunity for a do-over and rebrand or reintroduction of Google Advertising to Main Street America. The revenue potential for them is massive, and the impact for Main Street businesses to afford only advertise is right there for them, if they do it right.”
It is in a brand’s best interests to understand the antitrust suits that have been brought against Google, and the ramifications to marketing and advertising as well as consumers. The implications include changes for other tech giants as well, and will have lasting effects on e-commerce for generations to come. Brands need to prepare for the impact of the ruling on SEO, advertising, and innovation, and by being prepared, stay ahead of the game.