Google is quietly enlisting the help of small businesses to protect its nearly $2 trillion company from antitrust rules. In response to bills from Congress, such as the Ending Platform Monopolies Act, which would prohibit platform owners from favoring their own services over the competition, Google is telling small business owners that these bills will hurt their ability to find customers online and should contact their congressman regarding the matter.
We’ve seen Google take political action before, usually in the form of blog posts making headlines from CEO Sundar Pichai championing the latest product bundling scheme. However, the strategy here seems new; instead of writing a public blog post, Google is quietly targeting users who have registered business listings on Google Maps. Report these users received unsolicited emails and an “action item” in the Google Business Profile user interface, both of which point to Google’s new antitrust site.
Both the Google Business email and action item beg for a click, saying, “New laws could affect businesses. Proposed legislation could make it harder to find your business online.” Both items link to this site, which is full of terrifying language and implores users to “keep abreast of proposed legislation that could affect your business”. The site encourages concerned users to sign up for Google’s new political action mailing list, with the signup form saying, “By clicking this button, I agree that Google may contact me about legal and regulatory matters, events and advocacy opportunities related to my business.”
The site never mentions bills like the “Ending Platform Monopolies Act” by name, and as a result, the arguments for normal people can be pretty hard to follow. The site talks about nondescript “legislation” that will harm businesses and refers repeatedly to “these accounts” without ever mentioning which accounts are involved. Only after clicking on some “more information” links at the bottom will you finally discover the topic of the page by reading the linked press releases that talk about the specific bits of proposed laws for search engines, advertising platforms and app stores.
After offering the usual platitudes about the importance of small businesses during the pandemic, Google’s site framed its opposition to the antitrust law as a grassroots move, saying, “Some of you have also expressed concerns about proposed regulations in Congress that could have unintended consequences for your business and disrupt many of the digital tools you rely on every day.”
Google explains a few points explaining how it would hurt small businesses if they had to compete in each market individually:
If hired, these bills can cost your business time and money by:
- Making it harder for customers to find you because your business listing (including your phone number, address, and hours of operation) may no longer appear on Google Search and Maps.
- Making your digital marketing less effective if Google Ads products are disconnected from each other and from Google Analytics.
- Harm your productivity when Gmail, Docs, and Calendar are split up and no longer work together seamlessly.
The site also features the above image, which claims that limiting Google Search’s ability to promote Google products over the competition would completely destroy rich search results. The “before” and “after” screenshots show the usual extended search result (powered by Google Maps) with larger text, information about customer reviews, opening hours, a photo and links to phone calls, directions and more. Using the “after” example, Google claims that blocking the company from artificially placing Google Maps above the competition would mean no rich results at all and a return to the standard “10 blue links” interface from 1998. Google says customers would have a harder time finding local businesses this way.
This is a weird argument to make. Google won’t elaborate on why Google Maps and rich results would be so closely linked and why it couldn’t just show rich search results from another local information provider, such as whoever the best result is. Specifically, Google has a fully “structured data format” so that sites can provide comprehensive search results, and Google Search regularly shows customer reviews and pricing information from sites such as Facebook, Yelp, and Tripadvisor. The only difference is that information isn’t formatted as prominently as it is in Google Maps and isn’t pinned to the top of the page. Figuring out how Google Search can provide third-party map data doesn’t seem like an impossible task, especially when Google’s mission as a company is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
We’ve joined the mailing list and will let you know if we come across any more interesting FUD.