Why everyone should care about the ACCC search engine inquiry

google under a magnifying glass
Pictured: Google search under a magnifying glass
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Anula Wiwatowska
Mar 19, 2024
Icon Time To Read3 min read

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission today announced the examination of search engine dominance, and its relationship to search quality. Australia is joining the United States and the European Union in taking a closer look at how Google’s dominance in the market is, and has affected the internet writ large. While it seems like big picture stuff, search engine quality is imperative to the internet infrastructure as we know it. 

The internet is practically run off of search queries- 8.5 billion are made globally every day. On the web, traffic is gold. The more a site has the more value it has to advertisers, and to investors. Search engines play the middle man between user's questions (search terms), and the answer (publishers' pages), using algorithmic data in order to determine which content will be served to searchers, in what order. Since search is ultimately the gatekeeper for web traffic, whole industries have developed around optimising content specifically for search, and more specifically for Google Search. 

According to the Search Default and Choice Screens report in 2021, Google has been found to hold 86.34% share of the desktop search market, and 98% of the mobile search market in Australia. When an organisation holds this much market share, it also holds significant powers to manipulate how that market operates.

With everyone competing to be first on Google, it means everyone is trying to play by Google’s rules. Due to the algorithmic nature of Google search results, and the industry built around gaming the system, you may have noticed that many web pages start to look and sound similar. It’s like a TikTok trend; someone does it and the algorithm decides that it is the best content of the day, so other people copy it, and before long you can’t escape it.

For the most part these carbon-copy pages aren’t being made to serve the user, they are being made to serve Google’s algorithm. That is why some pages you find through search have seemingly meaningless headings in them, or go on a tangent that is only somewhat related to the topic at hand. It is simply because enough people are Googling those queries that someone has decided it is worth trying to capture that traffic. While you can still find good content through search engines (it is probably how you found us), it has led to a bunch of websites focusing on content that isn't tangentially connected to their proposition. For example, you might be wondering why CNN has a page about the Best Leggings, or Business Insider about the Best Vacuum Cleaners. In many ways it means users aren't getting information from the source that knows the most about the product at hand, but instead about those that have played Google's game well enough.

While search’s dominance isn’t likely to be upended any time soon, reducing Google’s market share could theoretically lead to more varied, and better search results across the board. Rather than simply looking at what Google wants, publishers can weigh the options of what Bing wants, what TikTok wants, what Arc wants. When publishers aren’t just vying for a singular algorithm, there will be more of a need for publishers to focus on their content quality holistically rather than what search terms are popular on Google right now.

Google’s supremacy is in part led by its third-party agreements to secure status as the default search engine. In 2021 Google paid 26.34 billion USD to Apple, and Android OEM’s to make Chrome and Google the go-to search engine across their devices. This revelation has led the European Union to enforce stricter regulations about search engine choice. Notably, the EU recently passed the Digital Markets Act, which now requires a choice screen that allows users to pick their preferred browser, and their preferred search engine. 

The ACCC inquiry could lead to similar actions, including mandatory codes of conduct for digital platforms to prevent anti-competitive conduct such as preferencing their own services.

As part of the digital platform service inquiry, the ACCC is seeking feedback from the public about the level of competition between search services, and how this affects search quality. Consumers, businesses and interested parties are encouraged to make submissions to digitalmonitoring@accc.gov.au by 17 April 2024.

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Anula Wiwatowska
Written by
Anula Wiwatowska
Anula is the Content and Social Media Editor within the Reviews.org extended universe. Working in the tech space since 2020, she covers phone and internet plans, gadgets, smart devices, and the intersection of technology and culture. Anula was a finalist for Best Feature Writer at the 2022 Consensus Awards, and an eight time finalist across categories at the IT Journalism Awards. Her work contributed to WhistleOut's Best Consumer Coverage win in 2023.

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