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In the beginning, it promised a new era of opportunity to advance the cause of free enterprise; a new pathway that promised a level field of competition where industries would compete for customers regardless of size, and where small, more disadvantaged marketers could meet larger, better-capitalized players on more even ground. It predicted that small, mostly local community providers would be able to directly access worldwide commerce, right alongside the mega distributors of products and services. The expanded number of players on a new world stage would bring down operating costs to the most disadvantaged businesses, and provide greater selection and lower prices to global consumers. Looking back, it seems almost folly that we could have been taken by such an unlikely fantasy.
As we approach the 30th anniversary of the start of the internet revolution, we are facing a far distant reality. Today a few trillion-dollar super companies are dominating the marketing game and demonstrating a model resembling the turn of the 20th century assault on the “free” enterprise system. Government intervention in the late 1890s and into the new century found it necessary to curtail what was illegal, competition-busting behavior of a relative few market-dominating businesses.
Today’s free-wheeling technology barons may be about to experience a very similar fate to the barons of the past. In October 2020, The United States (US) Justice Department initiated an antitrust suit against Google for allegedly illegal abuses of its dominance in internet search in ways that harm competitors and consumers. It was the first in what has become a string of actions against Google (Alphabet), and is the first step in an effort to rein-in anti-competitive conduct, exclusionary practices, and deceptive misrepresentation. Google’s share of the online search market in the United States is about 80%.
In a pre-holiday move, the European Commission produced two new proposals for regulating digital services in Europe. The proposed efforts are the latest example of a unified European, proactive, and ground-breaking approach to addressing the actions of big tech. At the first turn of the new year, 35 states, the District of Columbia, and two US territories joined in the assault on Google with another legal salvo. “Consumers are denied the benefits of competition, including the possibility of higher quality services and better privacy protections. Advertisers are harmed through lower quality and higher prices that are, in turn, passed along to consumers,” said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser at a press briefing. So why are all the challenges to big tech so important to marketing professionals and clients?
The most significant impact will be experienced by search engine optimization (SEO). Currently, most brands optimize websites for Google. If Google were to lose dominance, those websites would have to be optimized for other search engines as well as Google’s. “Many marketers still consider Google to be the only ‘real’ search engine — antitrust legislation could diminish this. Optimizing for Bing, DuckDuckGo, and even environmental search engines like Ekoru could become more necessary if Google’s outsized dominance is diminished,” says Chris Laan, founder of Designer Sheds. Losing could also decrease the frequency of ads, leading to diminished advertising placement opportunities. The upside, if Google loses, may be additional service providers, better user experiences, and more affordable advertising. “Marketers will have to be extra diligent about honing in on specific audiences and keyword content vs. casting a broad net and allowing the pay-per-click structure to cover potential waste,” predicts Ashley Shuey, director of Media at Allen & Gerritsen.
A loss, or even a negotiated compromise, will result in major disruptions to digital’s status quo and will likely impact other tech giants as well. The future of digital marketing will be affected for generations. So how can brands prepare for the new era of digital marketing?
Now is the time to begin researching alternatives to Google and Facebook. Past associations do not obligate us to the future whims of bully monopolies and fickle and unfair algorithms. A broader digital marketing strategy focusing on cross channel campaigns and multi-media utilization of tactics will spread the risks imposed by future actions against big digital providers. Direct mail and email marketing may deserve another look when it comes to allocating media spend. Remember that brands are customers too. Seek out those vendors that offer the best solutions and have the most value for the budget.