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United States vs Google: Antitrust on Trial

Google's monopoly on the search engine market

What’s happened?

US Prosecutors have started proceedings against Google, alleging that the company has intentionally and illegally stifled competition. Prosecutors referred to Google as an “unchallenged gateway”, where “competitors cannot emerge from Google’s long shadow”.

The senior DOJ lawyer opened with the grand claim: “This case is about the future of the internet and whether the Google search engine will ever face meaningful competition.”

Some fighting talk then, ahead of an epic confrontation. If this goes through, other tech giants are next in line to receive some of the same. Many believe that Microsoft will be next.

But does the DOJ have a point? Is Google being anti-competitive? There is no doubt that Google dominates the search market, but is this really a problem? Here’s our analysis and commentary.

 

Google argues that users prefer it because of the superior experience, not the anticompetitive practices.

It’s hard to argue with Google’s superiority. Since the beginning, Google has understood how to put the needs of the user at the very centre of its search engine. Frankly, it has been disappointing how Microsoft’s Bing and others have failed to keep up.

Google started by making things simple and relevant. It understood the value of links as a vote of confidence in the website and then it prioritised ensuring the quality of those links.

Its strategies have evolved. Google now evaluates websites based on E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness) and utilises several purpose-built AIs (such as MUM and Bard). And now it pulls content directly into the user’s search page (controversial to those in the industry, but it does make things easier for users).

I’m just scratching the surface, but to be even briefer – Google got it. It had the vision and has maintained the passion and expertise to see it through. This is why it leads on its mission to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.

However, although Google’s offering might be head and shoulders above its competition, many users and advertisers would like to see viable alternatives. Specifically, alternatives that don’t raise the same concerns around sensitive issues: Privacy, intellectual property, unfair manipulation of search results, censorship of content (or not enough censorship of content) – and more.

Without getting into a viability discussion of these arguments, surely markets need reasonable choice so that they can vote with their feet (or rather, index fingertip). A monopoly, and certainly one built on unfair practices, denies consumers and advertisers that choice.

 

What are the anti-competitive practices being levied at Google?

Largely, these concern agreements worth billions (typically more than £10bn per deal), whereby Google are paying to be the pre-installed online search engine for platforms such as Apple, Samsung, and Mozilla.

Google has also been accused of using its monopoly position to discourage Apple and Samsung from developing other means of proving some of their search requirements. The ‘all or nothing’ approach it has supposedly taken with Apple would have slowly prevented Safari from being able to develop a competitive alternative.

Google might be the best search engine, but these shenanigans do seem focussed on expanding their dominance. By removing the risk of non-conforming outliers, Google has tried to ensure that users are not able or motivated to change their default settings.

 

What is the legal governance around this?

Not clear. This case will be a bit of a trailblazer with implications for other tech giants.

It all depends on whether these practices are illegal because of their anti-competitiveness. The U.S. department Sherman Antitrust Act states: “An unlawful monopoly exists when one firm has market power for a product or service, and it has obtained or maintained that market power, not through competition on the merits, but because the firm has suppressed competition by engaging in anticompetitive conduct.”

Not much help there. “Anticompetitive conduct” is an ambiguous term, and there isn’t much precedent to guide us; society’s laws not being able to keep pace with technology is a frequent issue.

The $10 billion agreements that Google is accused of spending (in inducements to other companies to make its own search engine the default) would surely have been spent for a reason. This indicates that Google’s market dominance isn’t based on its superior product alone. The first question for courts to decide is whether Google’s actions are unlawful, and then whether such a monopoly position is tenable.

 

Does it matter?

I think so.

The laws here are intended to protect both advertisers and users – and to a lesser extent, competitors.

From an advertiser perspective, including our own clients, the concern is that with such a strong monopoly position there is little opportunity for other competitors to develop a viable product.

If market dominance is being unfairly held up, there is good reason to prevent that.

Even if “anti-competitive conduct” can’t be levied, it would still be wise to ensure an availability of choice. Other monopolies have been forcibly broken into smaller entities. That would undoubtedly be hard to do with search engines, but that returns us to the perennial issue: that technical advancements regularly outpace society’s ability to govern them.

 

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    SEO Updates for April and May 2022

    April started spectacularly with Brighton SEO bringing together SEO enthusiasts from across the globe. We witnessed a great range of talks at the biannual beachside conference, covering everything from the fundamentals of search right through to the future of SEO in the ‘metaverse’. The weeks to follow have continued to offer several other interesting developments which we’re unpacking below. 

    Google Released Annual Search Spam Report

    In response to a world searching for ‘how to heal’, Google highlighted how they kept 99% of searches spam-free with significant improvements in fighting link spam, scam results, and ranking manipulation in their annual search spam report. 

    Google also focussed on reducing low-quality content through identifying behaviours that manipulated search rankings. These behaviours would narrowly avoid violation of the quality guidelines but negatively impact user experience. With the help of their AI-based system SpamBrain, Google stated they were able to keep 99% of searches spam-free in 2021.

    As ever, websites should follow best practice guidance and steer clear of ‘black hat’ SEO techniques, such as keyword stuffing and product review manipulation, to avoid being penalised by Google’s spam algorithms. Producing high-quality, relevant content for your customers will always be the best way to help improve your search rankings. 

    Google Search Parameter Tool Officially Offline

    Back in March, Google announced it was going to retire the URL parameters tool, and this is the first month we can see it coming into effect. Google has now turned off support for the tool in Google Search Console. The decision was made by Google to turn off the tool due to the advancement in Google’s capabilities to decipher which parameters are useful on a site. With only a minute number of parameter configurations specified in the parameter tool deemed useful for crawling purposes, the tool was deemed unnecessary. 

    Google has stated that ‘Google’s crawlers will learn how to deal with URL parameters automatically’ in the near future. We would suggest making a note of this update on your reports and keeping an eye on your analytics over the coming weeks just in case any issues arise from this change. 

     

    Significant Changes to Featured Snippets being Tested

    Google has started some testing that may provide a major shake-up of the featured snippets section on SERPs. Our SEO Team certainly has a lot to say about these two new features:

    ‘From the Web’: Traditionally, the featured snippet shown at the top is a table, a list, or a snippet of text with a link to the webpage the content comes from. For text snippets, Google is now testing short excerpts from two to three other websites in the same section, with links to the sites added after the sites’ favicons. 

     

    ‘Other Sites Say’: Google is planning to group at least three different sites under a new ‘Other Sites Say’ section, which shares some resemblance with the established ‘People also ask’ section. Again, this will provide more exposure for brands, but equally will create more competition in the top-ranking results. 

      

    What could this mean for search?

    Sites that currently hold the featured snippet position for certain keywords could face a substantial loss of traffic as more competition enters position zero in SERPs. On the flip side, if you’re not currently featuring in any snippets, this update could increase your chances and improve traffic volume to your site. 

    It will be very interesting to see the impact of these tests on clickthrough rate (CTR) and visibility in the search results, and whether these updates are rolled out temporarily or permanently. One to keep an eye on!

    Google PaLM: The Future of Next Generation Search

    This month Google revealed a breakthrough in its efforts to create an AI architecture that can handle millions of different tasks by itself. Enter PaLM.

    What is PaLM?

    Google’s Pathways Language Model research (PaLM) is an AI architecture Google has been developing. PaLM can produce answers reflective of fluctuating contexts by learning how to efficiently solve millions of different tasks, including complex learning and reasoning. 

    What makes PaLM special?

    PaLM is a system worth recognising as it’s striving to combine the efforts of multiple existing AI systems, into a singular architecture. To achieve this, recent developments of the PaLM system have involved the scaling of the few-shot learning (FSL) process. This is a type of machine learning method that works with a limited training dataset, as opposed to deep machine learning, where an extensive amount of data needs to be manually input for the AI to learn each new ability. Essentially, FSL has the AI learning so it can make predictions based on a smaller dataset.

    Recently completed was the BIG-bench benchmark, where several tasks were designed to see how large language models, such as PaLM, responded. Of the 150 strong BIG-bench tasks (relating to reasoning, translation, and question answering), PaLM outperformed many of the current state-of-the-art models. There were many notable achievements on hundreds of language understanding and generation benchmarks, including: 

     

    • Enhanced reasoning abilities 
    • Explanation generation 
    • Inference Chaining

     

    This recent research shows PaLM delivers significant improvements compared to current AI systems and can even ‘outperform human benchmarks’ for certain elements of language processing and reasoning. However, humans still outperformed the new algorithm on 35% of tasks. So, whilst breakthroughs are being made, PaLM is not quite there yet. 

    What could this mean for search?

    Machine learning has a big impact on how search results are created, tailoring results more and more to the needs of the user. As PaLM seeks to consolidate all this machine learning into one AI system, the change to search may not be great. However, with capabilities in one place, it may mean Google can get an even greater understanding of the intent and needs of users when they use search engines. Either way, this is an update to keep an eye on.

    Did we miss any SEO news?

    Think we may have missed something worth exploring or if you have some thoughts you’d like to share on SEO developments? We’d love to hear from you! 

    Join the conversation and tweet us @upriseUPSEM, email us at hello@upriseup.co.uk, or simply send us a message through our contact page.

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      How to successfully run responsive search ads (RSAs)

      Not long ago Google announced the end of an era for expanded text ads. As of June 30th 2022, you will no longer be able to create or edit expanded text ads. 

      The announcement surfaced last year and here at Uprise Up, we’ve been preparing our client’s accounts ever since. Introducing responsive search ads (RSAs) into each of our ad groups ahead of June 30th. To help you also get ahead and be fully prepared for the change, we’ve jotted down our top tips in this blog for running successful responsive search ads. 

      First things first, what are responsive search ads?

      Responsive search ads (RSAs) are another step in the direction towards automation from Google. Expanded text ads (ETAs) had a set of 3 headlines and 2 descriptions that are shown statically, whereas RSAs allow us to select up to 15 headlines and 4 descriptions. Google then automatically tests the different combinations of these headlines and descriptions to give the user the ‘best’ performing combinations. 

      Ok, so what are the potential benefits of RSAs?

      • Improved performance. According to Google, advertisers that add RSAs to their ad groups achieve up to 10% more clicks and conversions. From our experience, we’ve also seen RSAs often out-perform existing ETAs when added into our accounts. 
      • Increase ad relevance and reach. More headlines and descriptions mean Google can serve more relevant combinations to the user. With more keywords in your ad copy, you’ll be entered into more auctions for relevant searches. 
      • They’re a time saver. Instead of needing to set up multiple variations of ETAs to test and learn, you only need the one responsive search ad which will test the combinations automatically.

      One thing to note is that while Google’s auto suggestions can often be useful, they are equally often not so useful. We’d advise taking a cautious approach when applying these.

      So, on the flip side, what are the potential downsides to RSAs?

      • Less control. Your ability to specify how an ad is formatted and reads overall is limited, due to the nature of the machine learning testing various combinations. This may lead to headlines appearing together which don’t necessarily work well or make sense to a user, or for your brand.
      • Reduced learnings. You cannot see as easily which headlines and descriptions have the best CTR and conversion rate, and therefore might work well outside of Paid Search.
      • Can actually take more time to select headlines and descriptions that work well together, but are unique enough, while also assessing whether to make use of the pinning feature (discussed below) can actually be more time-consuming than creating a standard ETA.
      • Beware of auto-suggestions. Google will be missing important context, so not all suggestions will be relevant.

       

      How to Run Responsive Search Ads Successfully

      Top tip time:

      • Include keywords in your headlines. To reach those good and excellent ad strengths you’ll need to make sure you have headlines relevant to your keywords. You can also use dynamic keyword insertions to insert your keyword into headlines, from experience this will help to optimise your ad strength. 
      • Include unique headlines. To give Google the variation it needs to test and optimise your RSA, you’ll need to keep your headlines unique. Try using a variety of calls to action and offers to improve headline uniqueness. 
      • Have a combination of short and long headlines. ‘Long’ headlines being within the 30 character cap.
      • Use all the headline and description fields available. If you can aim to fill out all 15 headlines and 4 descriptions, at a minimum include 10 headlines. 
      • Pay attention to ‘ad strength’. Google will offer you suggestions to improve the ad strength of your RSAs. You’ll want to get the ad strength up to at least “Good” but ideally aiming for “Excellent”.

       

      To pin or not to pin, that is the question.

      Responsive search ads are far from perfect, we’ll still quite often see Google pair similar headlines together as the highest serving combination (e.g. two branded headlines rather than a branded headline and a CTA). There’s definitely still questions to be answered. 

      Our biggest one is around the pinning feature. When setting up your RSA, you have the option to pin a headline or description so that they only appear in a certain position. While this sounds great (especially for controlling brand messaging), the ad strength of the ad is very much affected by the use of pinning. A lower ad strength may impact your achievable impressions share and your CPC, and may result in lower impressions/clicks as a result.

      With that in mind, you may be wondering: 

      • What is the actual impact of a lower ad strength on the total impressions?
      • Does this impact outweigh the benefits of improved brand messaging?
      • How do we best use pins to balance this impact?

      Fortunately, we have sought-out to find the answers!

       

      What we’re testing

      We’ve set up an experiment to test the pinning feature specifically. We’re running A/B experiments to test RSAs with no pinning, fully pinned, and a balance of pinning. 

      Specifically one thing we’re testing, is how the number of pins effects ad strength. For example will pinning 4-5 headlines in a single headline position still allow for a stronger ad strength compared to 1-2? 

      We’ll also be testing the impact of losing an ‘excellent’ ad strength in favour of pinning, looking at the effects on impression share against conversions. 

       

      We’ll be running this test over the next few months and look forward to sharing the results once they’re in.

      Here’s some examples of the types of variations we’re testing:

      Excellent

       

      Good

      Average

      Poor

       

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