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Google Leaving Australia and the News Media Bargaining Code

If you are a business owner for whom website enquiries or online sales are an important part of generating income, you have probably already heard the news about the possibility of Google leaving Australia if the proposed news media bargaining code were to become a law. The Covid-19 pandemic has already forced many business owners to shift their operations to an online-driven model – whether it was moving to providing services remotely or moving retail sales to e-commerce platforms, the Internet has helped many Aussie businesses stay afloat amidst this crisis. The news of Google leaving Australia because of the proposed news media bargaining code could not have come at a worse time for everyone from business owners to digital agencies. As with any conflict, there are three sides to the story – in this case Google’s, Australian Government’s, and the truth.

At Resurge Digital, we have been reading so much scaremongering coming from other digital marketing agencies and the media in Australia, that we have decided to provide a more level-headed perspective on what is going on, what may realistically happen and how it may affect yours and our businesses.

Why is the Proposed News Media Bargaining Code So Problematic for Google and Others?

Imagine a scenario where a hypothetical Steve Smith goes to Canberra and demands “I am an Australian citizen living here in Australia, therefore, every time anyone anywhere in the country mentions my name for any reason, you the Australian Government need to pay me”. It is a crude analogy for sure, but not too far from what the media are lobbying the Australian Government to do. Google provides links to news and other content for free, in digital marketing we call this “organic search results”. It is then up to the user to either click on the link and read the content, click on other competing content, or move on without doing anything at all. The problem is this: news publishers want to be paid for links pointing to their websites regardless of whether the user accesses and engages with their content or not. It is a rather heavy-handed demand, considering that Google is already driving traffic and displaying news content at no cost to the publishers. It is also not the case that Google just indexes news content behind the publisher paywalls and gives its users an option to read it for free. At most, you are given a thumbnail, a very cursory snippet and a link to decide whether you are interested in the story or not. Imagine running out of your home and demanding a passer-by to pay you money for looking at (not even living in) your property!

News publishers are also requesting access to the knowledge of the inner workings of Google’s ranking algorithms and to be notified ahead of any updates. While we have been long standing critics of Google obscuring its ranking algorithms, their non-transparency (outright opaqueness even) and the fact that an overseas, unregulated corporation algorithmically decides which businesses should and should not appear and where in the rankings, Google Search is not a public property, it is owned by Google. We are indeed in favour of more transparency and in giving businesses a fair go at ranking on Google, but there are at least two problems with news media knowing exactly how Google ranks content:

  • It would give the news media, many of whom maintain their own digital marketing departments an unfair advantage over every other digital agency.
  • It would let them charge an exorbitant premium because their digital services would be virtually guaranteed.
  • It would disadvantage small businesses without this knowledge.

Let us even say, that in the interest of fairness, Google is made to make its ranking algorithms completely public and accessible to anyone in Australia. If everyone knows exactly what to do to get content to rank in position 1 and 100% follows the required steps, how will Google ever be able to decide who should be displayed at the top? We are in favour of seeing more transparency, more transparency and better communication on any upcoming algorithm updates from Google at Resurge Digital, with the provision that no group or industry is left disadvantaged.

Is Google Leaving Australia a Real Possibility?

As the old saying goes “never say never”.

Google most certainly recognises the significant part it plays in the workings of the Australian economy. The search giant knows that the threat of removing its search service from the region entirely makes for hard to argue against leverage. Those businesses that depend on their online presence to generate income are now rallying to Google’s side by making submissions to the recent Senate enquiry. These submissions include individuals, businesses, business councils and even some media groups petitioning in favour of Google.

Is this just a way of pressuring the Australian Government, or a real threat?

This, unfortunately, is only something the key decision makers at Google know for sure right now. There are however a few things to consider. Primarily, what is Google set to lose if it leaves Australia? While Google provides search and many other services for free, it also makes a lot of money from selling advertising space using its Google Ads platform. At Resurge Digital, we cautiously think that it will be more likely for Google to try and recover or mitigate the costs imposed by the News Media Bargaining Code through an increase to the costs of pay per click advertising or in some other way.

In their recent open letter, Google answers a question that is also bouncing around our heads – “Why can’t you just remove news from Google Search?”. We are not one hundred percent convinced by the answer they give:

“In this proposed law, “news” is defined vaguely and broadly—way beyond what most of us would consider “news”. There seems to be no clear or obvious distinction between news and non-news content, and the way that Google works, there is no algorithm that could navigate such a vague and broad definition.”

While an algorithmic method of excluding news content may be problematic to Google because of a vague definition of what constitutes “news” in the News Media Bargaining Code, ultimately there would have to be either a list or a queue of news publishers waiting or hoping to collect their “tax” from Google. Blacklisting and excluding known domains from its index is something Google already does in avoiding to serve malicious websites, removing content due to DMCA takedown requests and penalising domains that are attempting to artificially manipulate its rankings or violate terms of service in other ways. Although with varying levels of success, Google has a history of engineering its platforms to allow it to continue operating in compliance with the laws of problematic territories such as China or Europe. It is unclear whether Australia would be a large enough market for major re-engineering of how Google Search works (while China may be worthwhile considering the potential number of users, Australia is much smaller by comparison). That said, we are not convinced, considering that a list of news media publishers operating in Australia would be known and finite, that Google engineers could not exclude their domains from the index, retaining the core aspect of its search service intact along with pay per click and organic traffic for all other users. Those news media who still would like to appear on Google, could potentially sign on with the Google Ads platform and advertise their content at a cost.

For this reason, at this time, we believe it is somewhat unlikely that Google will completely withdraw its search services from the region.

Why Won’t Everyone Just Switch to Bing?

We have seen this, and other similar questions made on social media in the recent days. Google is certainly not the only search engine out there, Yahoo, Bing, DuckDuckGo and Ecosia would certainly be an alternative. At the moment, Google is the potentially most affected and therefore the most vocal opponent of the News Media Bargaining Code. For those who are afraid the new code would equally affect Google’s competitors, and potentially force them out of Australia as well, Microsoft has, in fact, recently backed the News Media Bargaining Code and Bing could certainly be a viable alternative (just by the way, we quietly love the Microsoft Rewards program and some of our team members already use Bing as their primary search engine outside of work). The ACCC has also chimed in recently, suggesting that a Google exit could open door for publishers deals with smaller players.

Do You Have Any Good News?

We think so. Even if the currently dominant search providers were to leave our country, Australians will still need to find things on the Internet, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon if at all. Although the thought may be amusing right now, there are a few ways in which search could continue to exist even in a worst-case scenario. In Eastern Europe and Russia, Yandex is a search engine providing services in compliance with the restrictive local regulations. Beyond China’s Great Internet Firewall, Baidu does the same in compliance with severely restrictive state censorship. An Australian equivalent of those search engines may very well emerge out of necessity.

While this would certainly be an attack on the openness of the Internet, as the saying goes “Necessity is the mother of invention”.

Will I Still Need SEO Then?

Most certainly yes. Although a period of transition would be required for everyone to move to any hypothetical new platforms and while the process would most certainly be difficult for everyone. In the worst-case scenario of Google leaving Australia, your business will need good, informed and evidence driven search engine optimisation and general digital marketing services more than ever before. Why? Because while the situation stabilises and while new platforms emerge, it will be crucial to find new ways of getting your business, services and products discovered online and ahead of your competitors on all remaining available platforms.

If you are our client here at Resurge Digital, you may have noticed this little paragraph included in each (including yours) of our SEO audits:

“Not all search traffic comes from Google. Although we all have gotten used to saying, “Just Google it!” and while Google Search makes up the lion share of all searches on today’s internet, a significant number of users gets answers to their queries from other search engines such as Bing or DuckDuckGo and even Ecosia. In fact, in the last two to three years, Google’s search market share dropped from over 90% to approximately 89%. While actively focusing on optimising your website for these engines, we want to make sure that you have a presence on them.”

We have been actively including other search engines in our SEO strategies since our very first founding days in July 2019, giving our long-term and new clients a head-start.

While everyone will likely struggle initially, those who have help will stand a significantly better chance of making it through to the other side. A big search reset (we certainly do not want this to happen) may also provide your business with an opportunity for finally moving out of the shadow of those of your competitors who have been dominating keyword rankings in your industry for years – a great equalizer of sorts.

To reiterate however, contrary to what Google may be saying through its various mouthpieces and talking heads, we do not believe it would be impossible for Google to remove news content from its services while leaving search intact for all other users, especially given its history of negotiating around the regulations of other governments around the world. One way or another, in some form, Internet search is here to stay, because Aussies will still need to find things on the web. We are looking forward to helping our clients increase their visibility on the web, regardless of whether on Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo or elsewhere.

If you are still concerned with what may lay ahead for your business’ online presence, give us a call on 1300 659 035, because we, as the leading Brisbane SEO agency, are confident, we can help you no matter how the search landscape in Australia changes.