Marketers have always had an interesting love/hate relationship with Google. But they often end up wondering: Is Google a monopoly?
Today, Google is known throughout the web community. The online world relies on the search engine to make their day-to-day decisions and assist them with their queries. It has been the go-to source of information for the average, informed human being for almost two decades now.
Tomorrow, if Google suddenly vanished, people would find it odd, while switching and getting used to a new search engine would take time.
Let’s delve deeper into this.
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Think of it like Microsoft vs. Linux: Unless you’ve made it a point to not use Microsoft OS – you use it. As in, you’d have a personal opinion that leads you to opt for an alternative (like Apple), as opposed to just sticking with the widely-used and out-of-the-box method.
Same thing with Google. Your everyday person is not concerned with market share. It works well, they’re familiar with it, and it’s just second nature to turn to it for a quick answer. Unless you purposely avoid it and opt for an alternative, like Yahoo!, MSN, etc. – you use Google.
And under Google’s domain, it’s imperative to follow its laws. If a marketer or brand attempts to take advantage of any shortcuts or loopholes, it’s usually seen as a black-hat SEO practice. This almost always leads to severe penalization and punishment from Google: The search giant may push you back in the SERPs, or remove you from the search results altogether.
As a result, we can observe a certain necessity here in terms of a standard that brands, companies, and marketers must abide by. We can also see that Google takes full advantage of said necessity.
Which begs the question: Is Google a monopoly?
Despite the big tech titan’s robust hold, we can see that things are starting to change – recent events have highlighted a few questionable practices by Google.
This has motivated marketers to stand up and voice their concerns against the monopolistic practices of Google.
One might argue that in a capitalistic world, Google’s approach is just a method of maximizing profits.
To understand the current uprising of marketers attempting to hold Google responsible for its actions, we first need to evaluate Google itself. Despite being a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google is massive and there is a good chance that no other search engine will ever get as big as it.
To answer the question, is Google a monopoly – technically, no, by definition of a monopoly. However, for lack of a better word, we can call it that. After all, it checks 3 of the 4 factors that make up a monopoly (barriers to entry, price maker, and economies of scale).
According to Statista, Google currently has a market share of 87.96% in the search engine world. Here’s Google compared to 4 other ‘major’ search engines, Bing, Yahoo, Baidu, and Yandex RU.
As evident in the picture above, Google hasn’t seen a proper competitor in almost a decade. It’s not that the other search engines aren’t trying, it’s just that Google is way too big now and trumps all other competitors. Again, it has a market share of almost 90%, leaving all the other dozens of search engines to compete over the remaining 10%.
Search Engine Statistics
Here are some search engine statistics compiled by 99 Firms to wonder, is Google a monopoly or not.
- Search engine traffic accounts for 93% of all web traffic.
- 76% of desktop search traffic is from Google.
- 86% of mobile (smartphone) search traffic is from Google.
- Google processes more than 70,000 search queries per second. That’s 2 trillion per year.
- In 2018, Google earned $116 billion in ad revenue.
Here are some non-Google statistics.
- 33% of internet searches in the US are from Bing.
- Yahoo gets almost 600 million monthly users on mobile.
- 75% of China’s search market is attributed to Baidu.
- Almost 65% of Russia’s search traffic is attributed to Yandex.
- Com.com has become the 6th biggest search engine with a market share of 0.35%.
While these statistics may seem like these search engines are giving Google a run for their money – they’re not. All of these search engines are in the game for a reason.
What Are Other Search Engines Trying to Accomplish?
With the market share that Google has, it’s hard to compete with them. That is why each search engine is trying to carve out a niche they can cater to.
- Bing is being used because it is the default search engine on Microsoft’s Edge browser. Most people tend to not change it or are, at times, unaware.
- Yahoo! runs on its legacy and its dependency on Bing.
- Baidu is the dedicated Chinese search engine. It provides results and tools in Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese, etc.) which is why it’s preferred by most Chinese people.
- Yandex RU is a dedicated Russian search engine. It’s optimized for the Russian language, market, and people – which is why it’s preferred by the locals in Russia.
- Com.com is a dedicated question-answering search engine that’s known for providing relevant answers.
Google is actively trying to tackle and take back the market share being taken by these search engines.
Despite its idiosyncratic practices, Google is a gold mine for businesses. It’s one of the easiest and relatively cheapest ways of marketing. Compared to traditional marketing that involves TV commercials, infomercials, radio ads, and print media – Google is a revolutionary solution.
It allows businesses to gain leads and conversions they couldn’t have otherwise – everything from organic SEO to PPC is designed to set businesses that provide value up for success.
Is Google a monopoly in the advertising business now? It’s certainly trying to be, at least digitally.
All of this, however, isn’t because Google is in it for the greater good.
Google earns a ton of money from businesses trying to rank. That’s your standard all-American capitalism until you start to misuse that power.
Giants like Google can’t directly indulge in questionable practices, they need plausible deniability. This means that they need to be subtle, yet cautious.
The most noteworthy case, or one that was somewhat exposed, is the featured snippet.
Featured snippets, otherwise known as knowledge panels, are boxes of information on the top of a search page. Their objective is to answer your query with the most relevant and direct answer in the search results. Google says that featured snippets are there to help people and that they automatically choose the best answer based on relevance.
Google has a detailed web page dedicated to explaining featured snippets and how they work.
So, What’s the Issue Here?
Featured snippets sound like they’re an effort to help people, and they are, but there’s an issue. The current attention span of the average human has dropped to only 8 seconds. This means that people are used to looking for and finding answers in that time – and both marketers and Google know that.
Hence, when a featured snippet answers your query in a detailed, yet concise manner, you’ll more than likely have your answer and move on. You won’t click on the link that has provided the information unless you need more of it. You probably won’t even scroll down to check answers from other sites.
This means that the site providing the information doesn’t get the traffic it would otherwise have gotten. You can go as far as to say that Google’s featured snippets ‘steal’ potential leads from businesses. And it’s not as if you note which domain the featured snippet came from to say a mental “thanks.”
Is Google a monopoly for ‘stealing’ this potential traffic? The one’s losing the traffic would say so, Google, however, considers it as ‘helping the users.’
Consequences of the Issue
This practice has affected the traffic of many websites over the years, and has sparked two schools of thought:
- The first one says that businesses should optimize for featured snippets so their website appears on top.
- The second says that you shouldn’t aim for the knowledge panel since actual leads will scroll down and find your website themselves.
It still doesn’t change the fact that Google is technically taking advantage of websites and their content. Here are a few notable examples that have been and/or are victims of Google’s monopolistic authority.
- Genius vs. Google
- Wikipedia vs. Google
- LiveVideo vs. Google
- Celebritynetworth.com vs. Google
The aforementioned examples are just a few that have been highlighted over the years.
Genius is an online repository of lyrics and music knowledge. There used to be a problem with the licensing of lyrics because the creators weren’t being compensated properly. Most sites, including Genius, used to post song lyrics without attribution. However, Genius finally came to a licensing agreement around May 2014 which meant that they could legally post song lyrics.
A Little Background
The Genius and Google feud originally started back in 2013. At that time, Genius was known as Rap Genius. When Justin Bieber’s new album was released that year, Rap Genius started the Rap Genius Blog Affiliate program. They contacted John Marbach, founder of Glider, and proposed a deal. Rap Genius would tweet the links to Marbach’s blog while he placed the new Bieber album lyrics links in his blog.
Marbach exposed Rap Genius’ attempt to ‘trick’ the Google rankings in a blog post. This prompted an investigation from Google. Google ‘punished’ Rap Genius by destroying its search ranking and pushed them to the bottom of the 6th result page. Eventually, both companies started working on a resolution and Rap Genius was back on the first SERP. Later on, Genius published a long blog post detailing their side of the story.
Around 2014, almost all of the lyrics’ websites were licensed as music organizations and became more vigilant. According to industry expert AJ Kohn, the initial problem began when licensing and accuracy started to become the same thing.
Licensing is usually given for raw lyrics and lyric websites tend to make corrections before making any lyric live online. The content teams at these lyric websites need to make sure the lyrics are understandable, clear, and properly written.
This mix of licensing and accuracy was picked up by Google’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines. These guidelines are essentially what helps Google monitor and evaluate the changes they make to their algorithms. This led to Google including lyric evaluation details in their October 2015 update of the Search Quality Rater Guidelines.
Now, according to the 2016 SQR Guidelines, raters were told to give the lyrics box the ‘Fully Met (FM)’ rating. This is the highest rating and implies that the information shown gives the user exactly what they want.
Alternatively, when it came to rating a lyrics website, raters were told to provide a ‘Moderately Met’ (MM) rating. This was done to assure the accuracy of the lyrics being provided, which we know isn’t the same as being licensed.
In essence, this update implied that lyrics sites aren’t as accurate as the lyrics box on Google’s results. The primary reason behind it was that lyrics sites didn’t have proper licensing. No licensing means no accuracy. But we know and understand that licensing and accuracy are unrelated.
So, What Then?
We’ve established that the lyrics box content was deemed better than what was being provided on lyrics websites. Thus, technically, no lyrics box (featured snippet) will ever have content from a lyrics website. Mainly because it would be less accurate.
However, that was the case, the lyrics box was showing lyrics from lyrics websites. This meant that content that was rated MM was suddenly rated FM when it was shown in the lyrics box. This is a major issue because now we’re in the realm of business bias. This is where the problem officially started back in December 2015 when the lyrics box featured lyrics website content.
People wanted to give Google the benefit of the doubt but the evidence was pretty solid. This was because a popular lyric website MetroLyrics and Google’s lyrics results were identical. This was obvious because they both had the same mistakes in them.
After a while, these tainted lyrics were removed by Google. Removing it implies that Google knew about the issue and launched countermeasures to fix it. This means that lyric box content was indeed being taken from lyric websites while Google was aware of it.
On June 27, 2016, Google partnered with LyricFind to provide licensed lyrics. However, the lyric box was still pulling lyrics from other lyric websites.
The Burst Bubble
After Google had partnered with LyricFind, the lyric box started scraping lyrics from Genius. Genius had long suspected that something like this was happening because they saw a consistent reduction in site traffic.
The first real ‘proof’ Genius saw was when Google started showing the lyrics for the song Panda by rapper Desiigner. The song had complicated lyrics with unusual text and Google’s lyric box had the exact same content as Genius.
However, without direct proof, Genius couldn’t do much – so they came up with a plan.
They began watermarking their lyrics using different forms of apostrophes. These apostrophes were put in the lyrics to form a Morse code that translated into ‘red-handed’.
Since 2016, Genius claims that they found over 100 different instances where Google has scraped lyrics from their site.
It was a genius move.
There wasn’t much noise on this matter until the Wall Street Journal posted an article about it in June 2019. It was only after this that Google commented on the scenario and promised to rectify the issue. Google also promised that they would terminate any contracts with entities indulged in these questionable practices.
Shortly after, Google published a detailed blog explaining its process of gathering lyrics. According to Google, they tend to approach third-party licensed lyrics providers for all their lyric content. Also, the same content providers are responsible for making any corrections or adding new lyrics.
This may seem like Google’s not at fault, but they were complacent. According to Genius, they informed Google of this as far back as 2017 and yet Google took no action. It took a world-renowned publisher shining a light on the matter to get a reaction out of them.
Even LyricFind confirmed that Genius contacted them to inform them that their content was being scraped.
According to Google’s guidelines regarding scraped content, both Google and LyricFind were indulged in the act. More so, they knew about it, were constantly informed on it, and chose to not do anything.
Another issue is that Google’s rater guidelines are designed to automatically favor accuracy, which is considered synonymous with licensing. And Google only measures accuracy based on whether the lyrics are shown in the lyric box or not.
While Google started citing proper attribution links, it still doesn’t change the fact that the content comes from other sites. The content shown is essentially from a website with a ‘Moderately Met’ rating.
It’s hard to be featured at the top, especially when there are hundreds of new songs being released every day. Whoever puts out the new lyrics first gets to be on the top, ideally, that is. Thus, generating the highest volume of traffic.
However, if Google indexes your content but attributes another site then what’s the point? This issue isn’t prevalent in other featured snippets but in the case lyrics, it is.
That is why this case also caught the eye of industry experts and marketers like Rand Fishkin.
After Google supposedly fixed the issue and its source attribution, marketers were still skeptical. That is why Genius recently sued Google for anti-competitive behavior. Genius is seeking at least $50 million in reimbursement.
Meanwhile, Genius came with a new watermarking system using different forms of spacing between words. Yet the content scraping issue continues to persist. Considering everything, Google still went on to blame their third-party partners. This tweet by Cyrus Shepard summarizes the feelings of all marketers.
The next tweet just goes to show the level of power and influence Google has. It shows that Google is actively overshadowing organic results with revenue-generating click-through boxes. In this case, most users wouldn’t scroll down towards the actual links because they’re getting what they’re searching for on the top. This means that sites like Genius not only lose traffic but also page visibility. One can’t help but wonder, is Google a monopoly at this point?
Genius is probably one of the many lyrics sites that were victimized by Google’s rules. Genius took the stand against Google and it took years and a world-renowned publisher to do so. Although, they were able to get a reaction out of a multi-billion-dollar monopoly. And in the process, they got the support of the biggest marketers in the industry.
Victim to featured snippets, Wikipedia lost its ranking throne at the start of 2014. Before featured snippets were initially introduced in January 2014, Wikipedia used to be the first result for most queries. According to an SEO expert, Duane Forrester, Wikipedia saw a 21% decline in traffic after the release of featured snippets.
Between February and July 2015 alone, Wikipedia saw a 550 million organic search reduction. According to Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, this is a long-term issue. Ever since featured snippets were introduced, people tend to get their answers on the SERPs so they have no reason to click on Wikipedia’s result.
The same pattern can be observed in Wikipedia’s mobile traffic. Within the same parameters, 500 million mobile visits were lost in only 6 months.
While the main reason behind the decrease in traffic is featured snippets, there is more to it. After Google’s Panda update and the overemphasis on HTTPS, secure websites are given preference. Furthermore, Google’s algorithm tends to prefer brands over Wikipedia pages. This is, according to Google, an effort to base search results based on user intent.
Additionally, with updates to the featured snippets, Google is trying to provide direct answers as fast as possible. This has further pushed Wikipedia down the search results.
Marketers like Barry Schwartz have taken notice of this over the years. However, little can be done to counter Google in this case. The last time Google went against Wikipedia was in 2007 when they launched Knol; it was a Google project with the aim of becoming a repository of user-written articles on different topics.
Knol didn’t work out and Wikipedia continued to be the number one source of information. Although, Google found a better, more monopolistic way of getting rid of Wikipedia. Is Google a monopoly over Wikipedia now? To some extent.
LiveVideo’s case was hidden under wraps until a recent reveal made by its creator, Trent Lapinski in July 2019. Lapinski launched LiveVideo, a video platform with Brad Greenspan and Toan Nguyen of Myspace in 2006. Their plan was to become a direct competitor of YouTube.
The idea was to provide live coverage of events around the world. Including events like movie awards, natural phenomena, and online classes among other things. LiveVideo had started to get more traffic than YouTube at one point until Google stepped in.
According to Lapinski, Google’s anti-competitive behavior was the ultimate reason for LiveVideo’s untimely demise. Google allegedly started ‘cutting checks’ to LiveVideo users. These bribes went as high as $20,000, urging content producers to dedicate their videos to YouTube alone.
Google went one step ahead and started to delist LiveVideo’s website from search results. This led to a sudden reduction in traffic effectively limiting LiveVideo’s only source of revenue.
LiveVideo eventually closed down and everyone in the company got dispersed. No one really talked about what happened with LiveVideo until Lapinski spoke out after 13 years. He made a detailed video and post where he talks about the whole ordeal and how Google derailed LiveVideo.
After the post went live, industry experts and marketers like Rand Fishkin immediately took notice. Effectively adding the case of LiveVideo in the long list of victims of Google’s practices.
Lapinski published his post only a month after the WSJ posted the Genius article. This goes to show that there are many victims of Google who were just waiting for the right time. Primarily because giants like Google tend to be untouchable in this case.
Is Google a monopoly in the online video industry? Not anymore because a lot of video platforms have gained traction over the years. And also because YouTube has grown so much over the years that it’s not threatened by other video sites anymore.
Celebrity Net Worth was concocted by a former finance major, Brian Warner. Warner wanted to find out Seinfeld star, Larry David’s net worth but couldn’t find it anywhere on Google. This led him to created Celebrity Net Worth.
The site works by extracting online, vehicle, and real estate transactions and by analyzing salaries and purchases. At times, they corresponded with the celebrities directly.
The site was popular enough that it started to support Warner and a dozen employees. Then Google introduced their featured snippets providing instant answers to questions like, ‘What’s Nicolas Cages’ net worth?’
In 2014, Warner was contacted by Google who wanted access to Warner’s database to display information on the knowledge panel. It would put Warner’s site on the top but would drastically cut traffic because most people only want the number. Warner, however, refused because he didn’t feel comfortable giving away all that data for free.
Google, however, took the data anyway in 2016 when it started to show information from the site in featured snippets. Warner created some fake listings for friends to check whether the information was being pulled from his site. Turns out, it was, even the fake listings were shown in Google results.
By 2017, Celebrity Net Worth’s traffic had dropped by 65%. Warner had to lay off half of his staff while Google ignored any communications attempts by Warner. The problem was that the featured snippets didn’t even credit Warner’s website. This was because other sites like Bankrate.com cited Celebrity Net Worth as their source. Google interpreted the data provided as that of Bankrate.com, thus, crediting them instead of Warner’s site.
Warner came forward with his story which led to people asking questions. A couple of weeks after his story was published, Google made slight changes to its algorithm. It now showed fewer results and discarded featured snippets for celebrities that weren’t too popular. Celebrity Net Worth’s traffic increased a little but was nowhere near it was pre-featured snippets.
Is Google a monopoly in providing instant information? Somewhat, as long as Google’s algorithm can pull an answer, it doesn’t matter where it comes from. This creates a massive issue as a lot of people and websites don’t receive credit for the information.
While the cases mentioned until now are exposed, there are still some cases that haven’t come to light. While it may seem like speculation to an extent, Google’s recent behavior would say otherwise. Here are a couple of more cases to wonder, is Google a monopoly.
Google Gives Preference to Its Services
Google has been notorious for giving preference to its services over others. That is why it tends to always show its own products and services before others.
While that may sound like a company marketing its products, it isn’t the case with Google. Because Google is supposed to be a bias-free search engine that prides itself on providing value to its users.
In 2017, Google was found to be giving preference to its comparison shopping service over other results which goes against antitrust laws. The company was found demoting rival services in its search results. This led to the EU’s Antitrust Division to fine Google for 2.42 billion Euros.
On other occasions, Google was caught making changes to its search algorithms to alter search results despite them denying it. The report also stated that Google might have indulged in providing biased and censored results. It also claims that Google gave preference to partner sites like eBay. It also implied that Google maintains blacklists and consistently penalizes spam sites.
All of this is evidence that Google indulges in ‘direct control’ over the search results and at times, makes changes according to its needs.
Furthermore, this antitrust case is just one among many. Google has consistently got into trouble with the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), the U.S. Department of Justice, and other tech giants.
The Case of Private Blog Networks (PBNs)
PBNs are a wide number of websites that are designed to provide backlinks for your money-making site. You essentially make dozens of websites and publish meaningful content on them while linking them to your main website. This gives your website the backlinks it needs to rank better.
Google, however, penalizes you when it gets a hint that you’re using PBNs. This is because according to them, they go against their guidelines. Many marketers tend to ignore PBNs as a marketing technique and categorize it as a grey hat SEO tactic.
Technically, PBNs are a loophole that helps you rank by posting great and relevant content. However, this means that you can rank better without spending much money.
A big chunk of Google’s revenue comes from ads. Google ads are practically a paid ranking service that will put you above organic results. Websites that don’t rank well initially make use of Google ads to increase their traffic and conversions.
If these sites had a low-cost alternative to Google ads, they wouldn’t rely on it. PBNs are that alternative which means lesser people will pay Google for ads. Hence, PBNs threaten Google’s primary source of revenue. Anything that does that is automatically red-flagged by Google.
Thus, Google is just trying to save its revenue stream when it penalizes websites for using PBNs.
It’s Google’s way of making sure that they stay as the go-to source for better ranking. However, marketers have started to build high-quality websites with great content to use in their PBNs. The kind that is indistinguishable from the real thing.
One might argue that Google’s involvement in all these cases is a classic case of plausible deniability. However, when Google deliberately ignored the calls for action by the victims, they became complacent.
If you’re still asking is Google a monopoly, consider this. Up until now, it has been that either you’re with Google or you lose your ranking in one way or another.
However, marketers and Google are not mutually exclusive, both depend on each other which is why marketers are now pushing back.
The following are some insights that can be taken from these cases.
- Google is big but it isn’t untouchable, you just need to push them in the right spots.
- The company may never publicly accept their mistake but will rectify an issue while keeping it under wraps. Provided you push them to do so.
- Google can’t stand against the media, major publications, and news sites. They can be considered Google’s Kryptonite.
- The company doesn’t hesitate to retaliate with the full extent of its force. It’s best to approach any issue with complete undeniable evidence.
- Despite all this, Google still provides one of the biggest and most opportunistic platforms. Eventually, you will have to design your business processes so that Google updates don’t affect you negatively.
Google is the very definition of ‘too big to fail’ which is why it’s important to know what you’re fighting for. Your objective should be to negotiate with the company, not go against it.
Is Google a Monopoly? Final Verdict
Is Google a monopoly by a dictionary definition? No. But looking at Google’s influence, their business practices, and their behavior, Google definitely acts as a monopoly.
It is the biggest search engine in the world opening you up to the world. On top of that, with things like Gmail, Chrome, Android, and social media handles like Google Plus (which failed), are just some of the extra services Google provides other than Google Search.
There is a belief that every modern business needs Google for an online presence. While that’s true, this need goes both ways.
This means that marketers and Google have the same level of power on each other. The only difference is that it’s one entity versus tens of thousands of marketers and websites.
Meanwhile, Google has been expanding its data centers everywhere from Oklahoma to South Carolina to San Francisco’s Silicon Valley.
Is Google a monopoly when it comes to providing a central platform for all marketers?
Until now, it seemed unlikely that anyone would take a stand against Google. But as more and more cases of anti-competitive behavior and victims of Google pop up, we see a change.
Current cases have inspired others to speak up who chose not to because it seemed futile. This has led many industry leaders to take a stand with these companies.
Furthermore, politicians like Elizabeth Warren have vowed to break down big tech companies like Google, WhatsApp, Facebook, Amazon, and other social network sites in an effort to reduce monopolist behavior to help small businesses prosper.
A continued effort such as this will eventually lead to a better relationship between marketers and Google. Who knows, some other search engine might take advantage of this to grow.