Yes, yes, yes! You, or if not you, many, many webmasters a lot like you have been been tossing their baseball caps in the air and hoisting their six packs high at the news that Uncle Sam is casting its laser-like anti-trust eyes at Google.
For while it’s true that the U.S. government in all its might and majesty ain’t exactly David, it’s equally true that gizillions (or at least a great number) of people whose sites have been dissed by Googlebot would like to see Gogaliath cut down to size regardless of who’s doing the cutting.
Whoa there! Before joining the celebration, let’s examine some of the charges the government may (or, of course, may not) decide to file against the Sultans of Search and consider some of the penalties that might be levied if Google is convicted.
In Part Two of this blog, we’ll speculate about how penalties might affect our own web businesses. Will we prosper once we are freed from the shackles that bind us to Google? Or will the “devil we know” turn out to have been far easier to deal with than any new demons that may be unleashed by the courts.”
For now, in Part One, we’ll take a look at the most far reaching and intriguing indictment the government might levy against Google, that it a.) monopolizes the web search “industry” and b.) that said monopoly is anti-competitive and thus illegal.
The background is this. Google currently receives right around 65 percent of the total number of search-engine queries generated by U.S. web users and is expected to break the 70 percent barrier by the middle of next year or, according to some observers, the end of this year.
Talk about good news and bad news. The good news for Google is obvious, more searches equals more revenue. Both the number of Adword hits and the number of viewer impressions of Google’s display, multimedia, behaviorally targeted search advertising, etc. will go up. Increased Adword hits means more bucks for Google even at existing bid rates. Increased viewership of all the other ads will enable Google to raise their advertising rates without increasing the advertisers’ cost per thousand viewers (CPM) … an important factor in pacifying media buyers.
Now the bad news. A 70 percent market share has been a historic red flag in the halls of the Justice Department’s Anti-Trust Division. At that point a company, particularly an ultra-high-visibility company like Google, becomes a target for publicity hungry federal prosecutors to demonize and “take down” as a “monopoly.”
Though nothing involving lawyers is ever a sure thing. Two aspects of the government’s indicting Google for “monopolizing” the search market are certain; the case is sure to entertain law geeks and result in the re-writing of numerous legal textbooks.
Because there are issues. Issues without precedent. Issues like “can a bazaar in which every visitor is free to pick out any product he wants and use it for free” actually be considered a “market” in the legal meaning of the term.
Even more basic, for that matter, is the issue of whether a search query can be considered a product. If people in an office ask Supervisor A seven times as many questions as they ask Supervisor B, is Supervisor A guilty of operating a criminal monopoly?
Here’s another way to look at it. Say Google “gives away” the answers to 70 percent of the questions asked on the web. Simple math tells us its competitors, in aggregate, are only “giving away” 30 percent of the answers. IF a court determines that search queries DO constitute a market, Google would have a 70 percent marketshare and could possibly be successfully prosecuted. Right?
Not necessarily. Stripped of Latin flourishes and other mumbo-jumbo, the standard legal definition of “marketshare” is “the percentage of all products in a category that that company sells.”
But Google doesn’t sell search queries. They’re free. Not only that, Google’s major competitors don’t sell search queries either. They also give them away free and in the case of at least two of those competitors, they’ve been giving them away free since before Google even existed. So Google clearly didn’t get its alleged monopoly in search by using the time-honored method of predatory pricing.
The only way Google could hammer Bing, Yahoo and Ask six feet into the ground via predatory pricing would be to pay you to make search queries. And that generous they’re not.
There is, of course, the issue raised in the infamous Netscape v. Microsoft case. You know, the antitrust suit that was so delightfully enlivened by the revelation that Bill Gates indulged in Nuremburg-type pep rallies in which the troops were lashed into chanting “kill Netscape, kill Netscape.”
Perhaps somewhere up there in that great Google cloud gloriously covering us all with an infinite amount of data, much of it consisting of “Get Rich While You Sleep” schemes, “male enhancement pill” scams, and rabid political attack dog saliva, there is an email in which Serge Brin does say “Kill, Yahoo.”
Wouldn’t that alone make the Google monopoly illegal? Not if sanity prevails.
Bill Gates bellowing “kill, Netscape” meant absolutely nothing legally. What mattered was that Microsoft tried – and rather successfully at that – to carry out the chairman’s order to kill Netscape by using its near-monopoly in PC operating systems to force people to use Internet Explorer or else. Or else, in this case, going through a lot of hassle to “opt out” of IE and install a third-party browser that might or might not (not, if Microsoft could possibly arrange it) be fully compatible with the latest Windows release.
Google doesn’t do that. In the first place Google – the recently hatched Chrome OS notwithstanding — doesn’t make computer operating systems. Google doesn’t even bribe second- and third-tier software vendors to alter your system configuration in Google’s favor as part of their install process.
Yahoo and Ask, on the other hand, are notorious for “strategic relationships” with software companies that embed search toolbars in people’s browsers and change users’ home pages to Yahoo.com or Ask.com.
Alrighty, then. Does all this mean that Google won’t be convicted of having a monopoly on web search and is, therefore, in the clear?
Yes to the first part of the question. If sanity prevails, Google will not be convicted of monopolizing search. To convict Google of monopolizing search would be like convicting a presidential candidate of monopolizing an election because 70 percent of the voters freely and without coercion chose to vote for him. Still, it is always wise to remember that sanity is frequently a no-show at the court house, so anything could happen.
Regarding the second part of the question, definitely not. Google is not, absolutely not, in the clear. Like Microsoft, General Motors, RCA, the Bell System, the Edison Movie Trust, the East India Trading Company and thousands of other rich, powerful corporations throughout history, Google is quite obviously hell bent on attaining world domination. Exactly what world it wants to dominate and what form that domination would take is not as yet clear, but its lust for control is.
More specifically, the government is investigating Google and such cash cow subsidiaries as Doubleclick for abusing the trust of its end users and using the tons of semi-personal data it harvests from every search to engage in numerous illegal, anti-competitive practices involving real dollars, hundreds of millions of them.
In Part 2, we’ll take a look at some of the charges Google could conceivably be convicted of, the penalties it might face and the ways in which those penalties might make marketing your site infinitely more difficult in the future than it is now.
Oh, almost forgot. (That’s a lie, we never forget the important parts.) We’ll also explain how a successful government anti-trust action against Google just might make reciprocal linking for traffic building more important than ever.