The Federal Trade Commission has spent the past year investigating allegations that Google abused its power as the dominant search engine to block smaller rivals and promote its own sites and services. On Friday, the FTC announced that it would not pursue the action any further, nor will it impose any penalties on Google—and that’s cause for concern for smaller companies trying to compete against Google.
One of the primary focuses of the FTC investigation was Google’s Universal Search, a search option that prominently displays relevant Google products and services in response to related searches. The main question is whether Google altered its algorithm and doctored the results in any way to intentionally demote rival products and services, and unfairly eliminate competition. In the end, the FTC ruled that any changes Google might have made to its algorithms could be justified as innovations to improve the search experience for users, regardless of any adverse impact on individual competitors.
Google search is an arcane, dark magic. Companies and individuals are dedicated to mastering SEO (search engine optimization), but SEO is more of an art than a science. Even if you succeed in clawing your way to the top of Google search results, the algorithm can change without warning and you can quickly disappear into oblivion.
It’s also possible that Google’s self-promotion is simply a self-fulfilling prophecy. The point of the search algorithms is to find the best, most relevant results for a given query—and those results may be determined by the overall traffic and credibility of the linked domain. By virtue of being Google, Google’s own products are very popular and widely used, so it’s reasonable to think that even if Google did nothing but launch a product or service, the algorithm would quickly bump Google to the top of the results without any subversive intent on Google’s part. And, once the Google product is at the top of the search results, more people will find and use it, which will ensure it stays at the top of the search results.
If your small business eals in travel deals, local shopping, online productivity suites, mapping, or other purely online business, what can you do? Use these four tips to compete against Google:
1. First, understand that you’re going up against Google—and in most areas probably Microsoft and Apple as well. I’m not suggesting any company throw in the towel simply because there are competitors, but if you ignore the fact that you’re competing with giant tech companies that are household names with loyal customers, you’re doomed.
2. Second, don’t rely on Google. It’s the dominant search engine, but it’s not the only game in town. When you’re fighting to be ranked higher in search results, look at Bing, Yahoo, and other rivals, and try to improve your ranking in search results across the board so you’re not quite as dependent on Google.
3. Third, don’t rely on search results. It’s nice to be prominently featured at the top of relevant searches, but it’s hard to achieve and even more difficult to maintain—especially when the FTC gives Google a free pass to modify search results in the name of improving the search experience. Find more creative ways to market your product or service through social media, and other avenues like actually paying for Google Adwords, Twitter promoted tweets and such.
4. Most importantly, build a great product or service. Yes, when you’re competing against a 400-pound gorilla like Google—and the gorilla controls the online search results—the challenge is more difficult. But, if you focus on search results and have a flaky product or service, you’re dead anyway. However, if your emphasis is on the customer—and designing the very best product or service available—it will speak for itself and generate its own marketing.
Google is Google. It will rank highly in search results without any subterfuge by Google, and it’s up to you to be more innovative in your approach to finding customers.
Tony is principal analyst with the Bradley Strategy Group, providing analysis and insight on tech trends. He is a prolific writer on a range of technology topics, has authored a number of books, and is a frequent speaker at industry events.