Google vs Australia: How much power does Google have over search?

9th February 2021

Internet search engine giant Google is currently battling multiple court cases, including an antitrust case in the US. The latest is with the Australian government, with Google recently threatening to pull its search service out of the country.

This has raised questions about just how powerful Google is. Can it really dictate government legislation? And what are the alternatives to search engine most of us use dozens of times a day?

How powerful is Google?

Google has a 91% share of the worldwide search engine market as of 2021. That number is higher in Australia, between 90-95%.

Google has collected and organised more information than any other company or organisation in human history, is often the default search engine installed on smart phones and laptops, and can deindex any site it decides has violated its terms.

Suffice to say: Google is very powerful. If it is removed from Australia, it could have significant impact on how its citizens access and navigate the internet.

Why has Google threatened to remove its search engine from Australia?

New legislation is being debated by the Australian government which would force the company to pay all news companies in its search results. Unsurprisingly, Google isn’t thrilled about this development.

This legislation would require Google to enter into negotiations with news media to decide how much to pay to access and display their content in Google’s search engine, with the cost going to arbitration if a figure is not mutually agreed upon.

Google has claimed the cost would be too great, and it threatening to pull its service from Australian users. Google Australia made A$134 million in profit in 2019, so paying expensive fees for big news sites would likely have a significant impact on Google’s bottom line.

Prior to this case, Google has made around 450 deals with news companies around the world to access their content, and has said that a different model could be more cost effective for them than the one being proposed by the Australian government.

This boils down to the fact that in private negotiations with individual news companies, Google will have the upper hand: deals will be made on their terms, for significantly less than they’d have to pay under Government mandated law.

The reason Google is fighting tooth and nail to ensure this law doesn’t happen is because it would set a precedent for other governments to do the same, which would really eat into those profits they don’t pay tax on.

As well as the financial element, Google is also making the argument that unrestricted linking between sites is fundamental to how search operates. That point is directly undercut by their own business model, with anyone able to bid for ads at the top of Google’s search results.

So, could Google really stop serving search results to Australia?

Could Google really leave Australia?

Google has done similar things before, having pulled out China in 2010. Google also threatened to leave Germany when the German government introduced an ancillary copyright law back in 2013. The EU has also been looking at tightening regulations around Google’s influence on the web, so the company certainly has a precedent for doing this, and for ensuring it uses its power to dissuade other nations from bringing in similar legislation.

If Google is removed from Australia, that would mean the 19 million people who use it every month would no longer have access to the world’s most popular (and arguably most effective) search engine. It would also probably put more than a few Australian SEOs out of a job, who would be the real victims here.

Google has already admitted to ‘experimenting’ with removing certain results from Australian searches. It is, of course, a private company, and as such does not have to operate anywhere that doesn’t make financial sense for it to. Google could leave Australia.

This would set a worrying precedent, as Google plays a fundamental role in how the internet works. In a way, it’s the foundation for how we access information in the modern age.

Google has a lot of power, and it’s clear the giant is willing to use it to get its way.

What would this mean for Google’s reputation?

If Google does leave Australia it will have a huge impact on how they are perceived globally. Such a blatantly punitive move would require some heavy-duty PR to shift focus, and would also severely undercut their message of caring about an open internet for everyone.

What does the Australia case tell us about Google’s power over the search market?

When a private company can attempt to bully a country into changing their laws, it’s a pretty big sign that maybe these guys have too much power.

There’s an argument to be made that the internet was made to share information freely with no one platform having an advantage over any other, that introducing a law which alters the balance of who can and can’t access the news is fundamentally undemocratic, and that things should stay as they are.

Of course, the reality is that this idealised version of the internet never really existed. To the average person, Google is the internet. An independent news site that gets deindexed by Google may as well give up, because no one is going to find their content unless they go to the source.

At a time when the ability to access the news is more important than ever, Google arguably have a responsibility to shoulder the cost to ensure that news organisations remain viable, and that the public have easy access to finding their sites and articles.

We’ll continue to write about how this could impact the digital marketing and SEO industries as this story develops.