Google is “flexing a bit of muscle” in the face of the News Media Bargaining Code. Should businesses be paying attention?

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Google’s admission to hiding some traditional media reports in search results could be reflective of a sea change in the role of the tech behemoth in the SME landscape.

But, while there’s no harm in watching closely, there’s not a lot small businesses can do about it.

Google has reportedly said it is conducting “a few experiments” that will reach about 1% of Australian users, and which it says is measuring “the impacts of new businesses and Google Search on each other”.

In practice, that means 1% of users are not seeing news stories from selected media outlets in their search result.

The move comes amid ongoing debate between ‘big tech’, the Australian media and the Morrison government over the proposed New Media Bargaining Code, which is under inquiry in a Senate committee.

If the code passes into legislation in its current form, big tech giants including Google and Facebook would be forced to enter into a bargaining process with publishers over the value of the news they’re distributing.

In a blog post published in December 2020, Google’s vice president in Australia and New Zealand Mel Silva said the code as it stands “falls far short of a workable code”.

The code would be “an unprecedented intervention that would fundamentally break how search engines work”, she added.

This debacle raises questions about the future of Google in Australia. If the bill passes, will hiding certain news articles become commonplace? Will that lead to a breakdown in trust with consumers, and a mass exodus to other search platforms?

As unlikely as that might seem, the past week has seen a movement away from the ever-popular WhatsApp to competitors such as Signal and Telegram, after it emerged it was sharing user data with parent company Facebook.

In an extreme scenario, if Silva’s comments are anything to go by, there’s also a possibility that the ‘unworkable’ Media Bargaining Code could cause Google to pull out of Australia altogether.

Speaking to SmartCompany, Ben Hirons, founder of Due North and a specialist in digital marketing and optimisation, says he doesn’t see that happening in the near future.

Rather Google is “just flexing a bit of muscle to try and prove a point”, he says.

Ultimately, he would hope the long-term effects would be dictated by consumer demand. Users go to Google to find the information they want. If it doesn’t have it, they will be dissatisfied.

Google’s evolution of the past five to 10 years has seen the tech behemoth generally trying to do a better job for the person who is doing the searching.

For a lot of small businesses, it’s a crucial way of reaching their key target customers. And keeping those customers’ search habits front-of-mind is important, Hirons explains.

But at the same time, trying to predict what Google’s going to do in terms of how it operates and how it’s algorithms change “is a waste of time”.

“Focus on what you can control,” he advises.

That means building a great website, creating great content, offering great advice and entertainment to your customers.

“You don’t have control of Google. You can’t lobby for them to change things.”

But you can play the system. For all the power it wields, Google is just one channel for small businesses to reach their customers.

All the algorithm does, at the moment, is evaluate how much of an authority your business is, based on the content it finds.

Produce good content and you will reap the rewards, Hirons says.

Of course, all of this also applies to other search engines. The work that leads to a high ranking on Google search also leads to high ranking on Bing or DuckDuckGo.

While they might differ in terms of how they index or categorise certain things, they’re all ultimately trying to do the same thing, Hirons notes.

That is, helping people find what they’re looking for, and highlighting the businesses best suited to meet their needs.

At the end of the day, he adds, Google is a business, too. If it doesn’t provide the customers with what they want, they will stop using it, and it will go out of business.

“If they’re going to ignore the end-user, it will be to their peril.”

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