The monopolistic effect of search engines

The monopolistic effect of search engines – Q&A with Susan Anderton

You probably haven’t yet heard of the Digital Markets Unit (DMU), but it’s well worth having on your radar. This new regulator, which will sit within the UK Government’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), promises to revolutionise the competition regime for digital markets.

With high-level plans to promote greater competition, protect consumers and businesses from unfair practices and review Google’s search engine dominance, the DMU can’t come soon enough. 

As we await more details about the official DMU launch date, I undertook an interview to give my views on search engine monopoly – and why it’s very much time for things to change.  

Q: Hi Susan – what do you think about the launch of the DMU, and the potential investigations into Google’s search engine monopoly? 

A: I think it is an important move, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises. For a long time, I’ve been quite concerned about the ability of SMEs to market themselves competitively on leading search engine platforms.

I’ve seen firsthand how online advertising like PPC is unfairly geared towards big businesses where those with brands with big pockets reap the benefits. And whilst I understand that commercial businesses need to make money, I think the search engines are missing a trick by not segmenting their markets.

Take popular keywords, for example. Our research has found that, in some industries, organisations have to pay upwards of £150,000 per month to reach their target audiences. For most SMEs, this figure just isn’t feasible and they are not vying for the same customer!

Q: Let’s talk more about keywords and advertising on Google. How does it work, and what are the current challenges for SMEs? 

A: In basic terms, there are two types of search engine optimisation (SEO) strategies. There’s paid SEO and organic SEO. The latter being more challenging to achieve, no matter the scale of your business.

But in both cases, it’s really challenging for SMEs to rank highly – especially if they’re in crowded industries. 

We’ve already talked briefly about the difficulties of paid search but, looking at organic SEO, I’ve also seen many organisations struggle. It’s not that these companies aren’t playing by the SEO rules either. They might have fantastic SEO strategies and great content, but they’re still not ranking where they should be. 

Inherently big search engine players like Google are geared toward larger companies and more prominent brands. SMEs are at a disadvantage.

Q: When the DMU comes to fruition, Google may have to make some significant changes. What would you like to see happen?

A: That’s the million-dollar question! One thing I’d really like to see is segmentation within the SEO field. 

I think search engines like Google could dig a lot deeper into its different customer bases and create packages that are tailored to factors like company size, their target audiences and the niches within individual sectors. Truly understanding their customers, customers.

For example, looking at the legal sector, you’ve got a vast range of companies with different specialities under one key phrase or key word banner, but the customer drivers vary significantly – so this one-size-fits-all doesn’t allow businesses to compete on a level playing field.

I suppose, ultimately, I’d like to see search engines provide a platform where brands can communicate and sell authentically, instead of dictating how brands market themselves. 

Q: If the market were to be shaped this way, what would the benefits be? 

A: Gosh, where to begin – there would be so many! For one, we have to remember that SMEs make up 90% of the business population. Right now, it’s that 10% – the big multi-national players – that are winning.

It’s also worth noting that these changes would benefit search engines too. Right now the paid for model isn’t creating a competitive opportunity for smaller businesses.

Q: That definitely sounds much better than how things are now! In the meantime, what’s your advice to SMEs about navigating the world of Google ads? 

 A: It is important to remember, that behind every algorithm sits a group of humans creating scenarios. To create their own commercial strategies, they are looking at macro factors like political change, pandemics, economic shifts, environmental forces and so on. Marketers across the globe use change to their advantage, creating content and improving online value through being current or planning for this change.

To compete, SMEs essentially need to be forward-thinking and reactive, strategic and tactical, at the same time. This means planning campaigns well in advance but also staying on the pulse of macro factors and sudden changes.