Digital PR thoughts: What Google's fine could mean for online search


It’s one of the oldest questions in the online book- how do you manage to get your brand to the top of the results page without spending an arm and a leg on paid campaigns?
The obvious answer is clever use of SEO, which as any digital PR knows, is another minefield. The rules seem to change so frequently keeping up to date is a task in itself, meaning whilst intelligent words on screens can work wonders, the amount of investment in terms of hours makes this anything but an exercise in free marketing.
So online ads are only growing in popularity- a process of buying guaranteed exposure. Hence the digital ad sector now being worth 51% of the total value of display ads, which is £4.5billion in the UK alone. But what if the whole landscape is skewed, meaning results are built to favour the big gun gatekeeper over any other business? It could have significance repercussions for both faith in The Machine, and our view of the usefulness of both SEO and paid ads.
Google has been fined a staggering €2.4billion by the EU for breaking competition rules, the highest amount ever in a technology case, issued after a landmark decision was made, stating that Google search results were favouring its own products and services over rivals. It has 90 days too show how it will stop breaking the law, or face 5% of its daily profits being taken as a further penalty until amendments are made.
That’s a lot of money, but then the figures speak for themselves.
Currently, users browsing on desktops will click on the top search result 34% of the time, on mobiles this is slightly less at around 31%. 81% of all purchasing decisions now begin with an online search.
Clearly, then, if companies have lost sales as result of Google’s approach to delivering search results we’re collectively talking about a whole load of sales, and a shedload of cash. Little of which will be compensated because it would be impossible to figure out who might have bought what had the Big G not got in their way.
As such let’s look at the future, and how this could change the way search works going forward.
For one thing, the EU ruling suggests there is clear proof that this problem exists, and has been persistent. This means that the way your Google search happens has not been entirely transparent, and things will have to change.
As we explained already, SEO is a proven but time consuming method of rising through the rankings, but isn’t guaranteed to deliver anything like immediate results. However, if those results were already falling foul of bias, then perhaps there could be happier times ahead for people investing in this approach to digital, if they make an effort to stick to the rules, which are in turn set out by Google- or at least they are in 95% of European searches, which come through the company.
This brings up a slightly different, but no less worrying point, and one made in this article over on The Drum which inspired our own. Google currently forces publishers using a paywall into a First Click Free system- the first result we click on has to take us to a page of viewable content whether we have a subscription or not. But when this has been ignored the results (no pun intended) have been dramatic- Wall Street Journal, for example, suffered a 94% drop in referrals from Google when it decided to move away from First Click Free. By any stretch of the imagination that seems unlikely to have been from ‘natural causes’.
It is indeed a brave new world out there, and one wherein we have placed an awful lot of faith in one very big entity, which exists to make money as a business- that €2.4billion represents just 3% of Google’s annual turnover. Whether this trust has been completely misplaced is yet to be seen, but it does seem that before this court decision a lack of clarity on regulations surrounding search as a potential monopoly existed. When you start to apply that same logic to information, it presents a whole new moral panic that is far more sinister and difficult to assess than fake news.

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