Fifty attorneys general announced earlier this month that Google is the target of an antitrust probe. Any business owner who has happened to find themselves stuck in the company's orbit--that would be any company with a digital presence--won't hesitate to tell you such a move is long overdue.
Case in point: I just did a Google search for Basecamp, an online project management tool. The first two hits were for different companies--Smartsheet and Monday.com. Not too long ago, the same search resulted in a first hit featuring Basecamp, but it was an ad. The copy: "We don't want to run this ad."
"We're the #1 result," Basecamp's ad copy continued, "but this site lets companies advertise against us using our brand. So here we are. A small, independent co. forced to pay ransom to a giant tech company."
Basecamp founder and CEO Jason Fried doubled down on this sentiment on his Twitter feed, stating "[Y]ou're forced to pay up if you want to be found. It's a shakedown. It's ransom."
An Offer Businesses Can't Refuse
Fried is by no means alone. Any business with an online presence has at one time or another played by Google's rules to stay competitive. For most, it's a daily reality. The reason is simple. Most businesses need websites, and websites need to follow Google's best practices to be found in online searches, terms Google can force because it currently has 92 percent worldwide market share on search.
Google can make drastic changes to these best practices that have effectively buried companies overnight. A business that finds itself out of Google's good graces, or in the case of Basecamp, finds itself nestled one or two slots beneath competitor ads in search results, would need to create a paid campaign via Google Ads (38.2 percent of the online advertising market) and pay to show up in search results.
A business with a physical location that wants to show up in local search results needs to create an account for Google My Business, so it can show up in Google Maps (which accounts for 67 percent of navigation app usage), but also needs to keep an eye on Google Reviews left on its business listing. The performance of ads, search traffic, and app usage can all be tracked via Google Analytics (over 70 percent of the analytics market), which provides business owners (and Google, of course) detailed information about who's visiting their websites or using their apps. Most of these users will be using Google's Chrome web browser (64 percent of users worldwide), on a device running Android (76 percent of mobile users worldwide), which was, of course, developed by Google.
Per Bob Dylan, "It doesn't take a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows." It would seem that Google has a monopoly, but that's for the court to decide. On the face of it, it's not necessarily bad news; anyone who remembers the days of phone books, mail order catalogs, and paper maps is most likely glad for the convenience of the services Google provides--businesses and consumers alike.
What's problematic is the necessity of it all. It's all but impossible for a business to opt out of Google's services. Even taco trucks have websites. It's equally difficult for us as consumers to opt out entirely, although alternatives (e.g., iOS, Apple Maps, and Bing) do exist. The fact is that businesses and industries that don't in some way rely on at least one of Google's services to be discovered are few and far between.
Our Data Is Valuable
However much value our data has, the fact remains that Google charges us to share it with Google. Nice work if you can get it, right?
When companies use Google's services to make themselves known to the world, they have to share data on themselves, and also on their customers and clients. Every search query leading to a site, every ad click, every map search, and every visit tracked by analytics is actively helping Google build its library of information on as many people as possible--even people who have never actually used the internet.
As Google continues to expand its services, its ecosystem is oozing into businesses that have no choice but to pony up and participate or be lost in cyberspace. The evolution thus far points to the possibility of increasingly Orwellian methods in the realm of advertising and data collection.
What do I mean by Orwellian? Google Home and Nest products are aggressively moving into the field of facial recognition, and, of course, the company is thus far characteristically coy about the intended uses for the data thus collected.
"We can never say never," said Google's general manager of Home and Nest products when asked if data from face scanning would be used to target consumers for advertising. He added that it is not being used for that purpose now.
It's far too soon to tell how the antitrust probe of Google will turn out, and it's guaranteed to take a long time to play out. One thing is certain: The stakes are just as high, if not higher, for businesses as they are for consumers, and we all would be better served were we not being served by Google's tentacular array of services.