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Google Watch: Is the Search Engine a Monopoly?

November 21st, 2010

google watchTEL AVIV — After I was laid-off from my job as a newspaper editor in Boston and then moved to Israel, I found myself in the online-marketing industry here in the Silicon Valley of the Middle East.

While learning about search-engine optimization (SEO) — in various capacities, companies, and contexts and before starting to work as an online-marketing consultant myself — I realized one thing: The primary question in the industry is, “What will Google like?” Everything — short of a few aspects of marketing on social-media networks like Facebook and Twitter — is a response to this query.

As a result, an often-asked question is whether the company has a monopoly. Google, after all, had 72% of the online-search market in September 2010. A seemingly-disturbing infographic puts the issue into the historical context of past U.S. companies at their heights:

  • Microsoft’s Internet Explorer was on 75% of computers in 1998
  • U.S. Steel produced 67% of steel in the United States in 1901
  • Standard Oil controlled 91% of oil production and 85% of oil sales in 1904

However, this comparison is not entirely valid. Here is the standard definition of “monopoly”:

A situation in which a single company owns all or nearly all of the market for a given type of product or service.

A business has a monopoly not only when they dominate the market; it must also dominate the market in a way that prevents competition from arising. By installing Internet Explorer on all computers automatically, Microsoft could have been viewed as stopping competing browsers since few people would seemingly bother to download a different one. U.S. Steel and Standard Oil had monopolies because there was largely no other way for other businesses to produce — or for consumers to purchase — steel and oil, respectively.

Google Watch: Do Marketers Need to do it?

In this context, Google does not have a monopoly. All people are free to conduct online searches through Yahoo!, Bing, or a litany of other search engines — and Google, in no way, prevents them from doing so. In addition, the vast majority of Google’s revenue comes from its advertising network — AdSense for website publishers and AdWords for online advertisers — but writes and companies are free to use other ad networks. Google cannot be faulted because its search algorithms and advertising services are (arguably) better than the competition.

However, there is the demonstrative definition and connotative definition of “monopoly.” Google may not have a monopoly on (legal) paper, but it might have one in (online) practice. I will use my other blog, Considerations, as an example based on my experiences in the online-marketing industry.

After I write a rough draft of a post, I do a keyword analysis to determine which phrases related to the topic are popular in Google. Take my recent series over at Considerations on the cultural interplay between Islam, Muslims, and Europe. This is a small sample of my research for relevant Google search-terms:

Keyword Competition Monthly Searches
muslims sharia 0.01 3600
muslims sharia law 0.01 2400
islam and sharia 0.01 1900
sharia islam 0.01 1600
muslim sharia law 0.02 4400
sharia islamic law 0.02 3600
islamic sharia law 0.02 2900
ahmad hanbal 0.02 2400
muslim sharia 0.02 1900
freedom of religion in constitution 0.02 1600
muslim law sharia 0.02 1300
sharia law muslim 0.02 1000
islamic shariah 0.03 8100
islamic sharia 0.03 6600

“Competition” is now a value between 0.00 and 1.00 — formerly an integer between 0 and 10 — that generally refers to how many websites are fighting to rank highly in organic-search and PPC results (the goal is always the first-page of Google) for that specific term. The higher the value, the greater the competition. “Global Monthly Searches” is self-evident.

Whenever a person writes a blog article or publishes a website, the usual goal is to use relevant keywords that have low competition and high numbers of searches. As the headline of the linked post — “Islamic Shariah and the West” — reveals, I choose the keyword in bold (among others) in the above chart. If the online marketing for Considerations is effective, then that one post by itself could eventually garner more than 7,000 hits per month if it will rank in the top search-results.

What will Google like?

Keyword research is also a factor in generating significant online-advertising revenue. In Google’s advertising platform, advertisers bid on specific keywords in real-time for their ads to be shown on websites that use that keyword. My research, for example, may reveal that the keyword “islam and sharia” may garner $0.25 per click from the Google Ads on my blog but that “muslims sharia” may earn $0.75 per click. (Based on my testing, Google Ads is still the advertising platform that delivers the best results both to publishers and advertisers.)

As I result, I need to optimize each individual post both for the keywords that will bring the most traffic from search engines and for the keywords that will offer the most revenue from advertisements. (How exactly I do these things is, well, my day job — I work privately as an SEO consultant as well. And there is a lot more to the trade than keywords.) In the end, it all comes down to analyzing data in the context of Google’s organic-search and advertising platforms.

What will Google like?

As I wrote in a prior post, the dichotomy between advertising and content is vastly different in online publishing from what I had experienced as a Boston newspaper editor. Print journalists and editors spend much time arguing over which words in articles and headlines would be the most accurate, the most neutral, and the most attention-grabbing.

But the online world adds a third consideration: which words in headlines and text (and elsewhere) will generate the greatest search-engine traffic and advertising revenue. (Of course, all four apply only to online journalism-websites — corporate websites tend to focus solely on the latter.) As the founder and publisher of Considerations, I need to take all of these aspects into account.

Still, sadly, this is one reason why famous newspaper headlines like the Boston Herald’s “Jane Erred” are disappearing and most online headlines are boring. The purpose of headlines on websites is not to get a chuckle from the reader; it is to get search-engine traffic. And more people will search Google for “Jane Swift” — a former Massachusetts Lt. Governor — than “Jane Erred.”

What will Google like?

The search-engine giant, of course, has the (in)famous motto, “Don’t be evil.” But cynics — perhaps reasonably — still wonder if it is even possible for Google to be neutral while delivering instant search-results.

A phone book, for example, presents a directory in an objective manner — from A to Z. But Google’s famous “spider” is an algorithm that can only process directives as written and programmed by humans (who, of course, are fallible and can have ulterior motives). Can anyone truly know whether the algorithm intentionally ranks, say, Yahoo! Maps lower than Google Maps regardless of the query? One rumor I have heard is that so many people have been involved in the creation of Google’s search technology over the years that no single person knows anymore how exactly it works. But, of course, I have no way to verify that claim.

Still, while researching the keywords for this specific post, I was pleased to see the following results based partially on data provided by Google:

Keyword Competition Monthly Searches
google watch 0.04 60500
google a monopoly 0.07 4400
google monopoly online 0.22 210
internet monopoly 0.56 3600

A cynic could be forgiven for thinking that Google would expunge any keywords in its data that reflect poorly on the company. (Then again, the reference to “monopoly” may refer to the board game rather than queries for articles, like this one, that discuss whether Google is a monopoly.)

Regardless, I will use these keywords in this post. After all, the main strategy is always: “What will Google like?”

Samuel J. Scott, a former journalist in Boston turned Internet marketer in Israel, is the founder and publisher of My SEO Software and Director of Digital Marketing and Communications and SEO Team Leader at The Cline Group. You can follow him at Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. His views here and elsewhere do not necessarily reflect those of his company and clients.