Imagine a world where Google has no secrets, where all search engines play fair, and where SEO doesn’t have to be synonymous with “page one.” Sound like a fairy tale?
The Internet is often cast as the great democratizer, and Google its noble gate-keeper. There’s no doubt that search engines help us easily navigate the web, but we have to remember that Google is a corporation, not a public service.
Our faith in its wisdom and guidance is based on little more than a carefully planned PR scheme. Behind that curtain, few of us really have any idea what’s going on. That kind of blind trust may be dangerous for content creators and consumers alike, both in terms of what we see and what we get.
In a recent column for U.S. News & World Report, artificial intelligence expert Dr. Robert Epstein detailed 10 different ways Google uses blacklists to censor the Internet. Some of them seem perfectly within reason – noble, even: banning weapons sales through its shopping service, for instance, or blocking payday loan sharks from AdWords.
Few are going to argue with these measures. In fact, it’s nice to see a little corporate responsibility every once in awhile.
At the same time, though, how can we know when and where to draw the line? At what point does “corporate responsibility” become a catch-all phrase for “Google does what Google wants”?
The point Epstein makes is that with virtually every case of good Samaritan censorship practiced by the “do no evil” company, similar tactics have been used to justify some pretty blatant power grabs or downright bullying.
When media sources in Spain began demanding that aggregators pay fees for content, for example, Google News simply pulled out of the country altogether, and Spanish-based digital news sources have taken a serious hit since.
Consider too, the case of E-Ventures Worldwide, an SEO service website that had all 365 pages of its site blacklisted from search engine results because Google deemed them “pure spam.”
True, these revelations are not shocking for people who deal in SEO. Our line of work more or less entails tracking and following every algorithm-scented footprint or bit of guano we can find that might lead us to the keys of Google’s ranking systems, even while we live in constant fear of punishment from its all-knowing servers.
It comes as no surprise that Google harbors a tremendous power to influence, say, the results of a certain upcoming political election, or even to sway public opinion on the latest Taylor Swift/Kanye West escapade. The question is – and it’s a contentious one – where does it all end?
At what point (and sooner or later, there must come a point) will the authorities and powers-that-be have to reign in Google’s master controls over internet content and searchability?
After all, the FCC’s net neutrality ruling last year made internet service practically a public utility – in regulation, if not in name. And after broadband service providers, no one has more influence and control over the flow of the web than Google does.
“If Google were just another mom-and-pop shop with a sign saying ‘we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone’, that would be one thing,” Epstein writes. “But as the golden gateway to all knowledge, Google has rapidly become an essential in people’s lives – nearly as essential as air or water. We don’t let public utilities make arbitrary and secretive decisions about denying people services; we shouldn’t let Google do so either.”
The day of reckoning for Google may come sooner than you might think.
Despite a long line of similar cases that have, without exception, ruled in Google’s favor – giving them free range to rank and rate content in whatever way they please – the E-Ventures case in Florida is actually making some headway.
Back in May, the federal judge on the case ruled that Google had “anti-competitive, economic” motives for blacklisting E-Ventures’ pages: the better SEO companies are at their jobs, after all, the less businesses need to pay for AdWords, which is how the search engine makes most of their revenue. It’s not, as Google argues, simply a matter of “free speech” anymore.
On a larger scale, the European Union is also trying to crack down on Google’s Internet monopoly.
Google claims 90% of the search engine market across the continent (compared to just 64% in the US), and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, the European Commission’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, says the company is unfairly using that leverage to promote its own advertising materials over that of the competition’s.
This is the third shot the EU has fired at Google in less than two years. Previously, Vestager & co. have filed antitrust complaints against the company over their search engine dominance and over the mandatory Google apps that come pre-loaded with every Android phone. “Google’s magnificent innovations don’t give it the right to deny competitors the chance to innovate,” Vestager says.
All three charges will likely come to a head before the summer’s through. So far, Google has, of course, denied any wrongdoing. But if the Commission succeeds in making a case, Google may have to pay as much as 10% of its revenue (i.e., in the neighborhood of $7 billion per annum) to the European Union to foster a more open, inclusive market.
It all begs the question: what would an SEO world look like where Google wasn’t necessarily the prime target of our efforts? Furthermore, what would happen to SEO analytics if Google’s criteria was for page rankings were completely transparent?
Experts have been saying for years that SEO strategies should be thinking outside the Google search box, but few other engines have been able to make so much as a dent in the web.
Bing, by comparison, is still only a tiny blip on the radar, with 14 billion indexed pages to Google’s 45 billion. The fastest-growing search engine on the scene is DuckDuckGo, a service that brags enhanced privacy and security.
While they manage to pull in 100 million visits every month, it’s still not much compared to Google’s 100 billion. Meanwhile, social media is trafficking more content than ever, and other search services like Yelp and Flickr have cornered markets where Google lags behind.
If the European Union has its way, more competing search engines might be able to increase their power, size, and scope – and forever change the internet landscape as we know it.
The bottom line: There is a world outside of Google. But will we know what to do with it once we’re there?