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Google threatens to leave Australia, and why it’s probably a bluff

Is there a future without Google in Australia? The search giant has hinted it might happen if the government puts into action a code it doesn’t agree with.

By now you’ve probably heard the big tech news of the weekend, because it’ll be on TV, radio, and quite a lot of websites beyond ours: Google has suggested that if the Australian government’s media code goes ahead, Google will leave.

Just like that, Google will take its search business off our large island and shut off the search capabilities, forcing you to another search engine which may or may not be as useful as the one you commonly use.

Google isn’t the only search engine out there, and Bing and Duck Duck Go are probably eagerly anticipating and hopeful that Google makes good on its promise to get out if the government has its way, but it all sounds a bit like stomping and chest-beating.

There are some pretty obvious reasons why, and there are also some interesting arguments on both sides of the government’s code, so if you’ve only heard the news — Google might be leaving! — it’s worth understanding how we got where we are.

What’s happening with Google to make it want to take its search away from Australia?

What Google does in relation to news

To understand what’s going on, you need to think about what Google serves up, and how we find out about the news.

Back in the good ol’ days, we’d hear about our news from the newspaper and the TV’s regular news spots, plus that thing you might have heard about called “radio”. These days, that’s all changed, because we hear about our news online first. Online news comes from many sources, be it social over Facebook and Twitter, someone live streaming over YouTube or a TV network’s stream, or maybe just on the web itself.

Search engines such as Google help people find that news, because its web crawlers explore every page that goes online that they’re allowed to visit, and then detail it in a search results page for us to click on. Every time you type something into Google, its robots look through the massive libraries of indexes, and spit out what it believes are the best results for your query, creating links to them.

Those results change often, too. They can change based on where you are and how the other webpages have changed. They can change based on whether you’re browsing from a phone or laptop, and whether you’re in Australia or England or France or Japan or America. Anywhere. And they can provide links to any website that allows Google to read its content, be it a news site, a product site, or a site made for videos.

Linking to information is very much one of the major underpinning points about how the web works, and how search on the web works. It’s a form of verification for the strength and authenticity of a website, and it’s a major part of how Google works the way it does, and why Google search does what it does.

But if you’re a news organisation that happens to want people to pay to read your content — because it’s very hard to make money from people simply reading your website — Google might represent a threat. When someone makes a search on Google and finds a list of results including said news organisation’s page, some organisations have seen that as a need to get paid for that, because the links from those pages could also serve up some of that news as an excerpt of information, and may also prevent a user from clicking through.

The idea could be boiled down to something as simple as this: if Google’s News system, search results, and Google’s Discover feed shows some of the news, and that prevents people from clicking, has Google bilked the news site?

Google vs big media and the Australian government

The answer is not really, because that’s not really how the web works, but the government is working with large media organisations from News Ltd and Nine (Fairfax) to try and make sure that if Google did show elements to its news and provide links, it gets a portion of money to account for it.

The thing about this is that the web is built on links, and webpages are built on a system. Almost every web page serves up a title and description of what that webpage represents, and Google can and will include it in a list if it has been given the access to do so.

That’s part of what you see when you make a search on Google: the list of results can be the title and description of that page. But to make the search better, Google’s robots will also read the website, as well, and can sometimes form its own titles and descriptions based on what it believes the website is conveying in connection to the search you’re making. This is part of what makes Google more than just a complex crawler, but a growing search engine.

Reading through the proposal the government is trying to get through, large media organisations — which seem to centre specifically on large media organisations such as those produced by News Ltd and Nine — are hoping that the Australian government’s “News Media Bargaining Code” will force Google to pay for links based on what it provides, essentially balancing things and helping journalists and the organisations get paid. However, it focuses on something described as “core news” — national, international, economy, current affairs, crime and such — and seems to arrive with the blessing of Nine and News, but not taken up by all.

Part of the proposed process is that when organisations expect payment, Google and the media organisation will head to negotiation and mediation, with the media company to work out how much they should pay, a process drafted by Australia’s consumer watchdog, the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC). The logic here is that there is no fixed amount for what Google would necessarily have to pay, and the two can work on something until an agreement is found.

There are other factors of the code that go beyond the paying of links to content, such as providing algorithmic changes to companies within a 14 to 28 day period to allow those companies a chance to prepare their webpages so they don’t lose.

The problem with this idea is that Google provides no indication to anyone on what its search changes look like, giving everyone an even footing to respond, not just favouring larger companies. It might seem unfair to have the algorithm suddenly change for content, but it’s the same level of fair and unfair that everyone shares, so one organisation isn’t favoured over any other, and the search engine isn’t giving a single website or company an unfair advantage.

This journalist also works as search engine optimisation specialist, and being forced to hand over how search will change to a couple of companies would not only apply an uneven approach, it belies the very nature of search and the understanding of content, failing to help it grow.

The evolution of search is about understanding content in the best way possible so that when you do search for something, you’re given the best result you can see. While every company will have their belief on what constitutes “the best result”, the idea is simple: the user is what matters here, and the search engine is trying to understand content to provide that middle-ground definition of “best” to them.

In attempting to deliver that, Google also sells AdWords to companies who want to sit at the top of its ads on specific searches, and that’s where Google makes a huge amount of money. Ranking in Google is difficult, so positioning in Google’s AdWords is easier, and typically just comes from a bidding war of who will pay the most for searched terms. It’s where Google makes a killing, with much of Google’s $4.8 billion revenue in Australia last year coming from that.

As such, the code is complex, and is not just about paying for links to content, but essentially giving large media organisations a potential advantage in the search engine, which no organisation clearly has.

Around the world, the ABC reported that the US has already asked the Australian government to kill the proposed laws, which would also affect Facebook, and may prevent Facebook users from being about to post news-related content and share stories on its platform, while also removing news from Google in Australia.

This week, Google responded to the Australian government by saying if the laws came into place, it would switch off Google search in Australia, as reported by the AFR.

No doubt it’s a huge threat, and basically sends the signal that if the government moves ahead, Google will drop Australia.

But it might not be as simple as that, and Google would probably just handicap Australia, rather than an outright departure.

Here’s why.

Google Nest Audio with the Google Pixel 4a
Google Nest Audio with the Google Pixel 4a: two potentially good reasons why Google wouldn’t leave.

Why Google probably wouldn’t leave Australia

As interesting the threat is that Google would leave, there are lots of reasons compelling it to stay, and money is a big part.

In Australia, Google makes around $4.8 billion yearly, with the Sydney Morning Herald reporting in 2020 that a good $4.3 billion came from the AdWords that Google sells on its search engine. That’s a lot of money, and hard for a company to shake off, so we’d expect Google would just keep on selling AdWords to people who need to be in that top position, who need to keep paying to play.

But Google is a private company, and while search can seem like a right, it might not actually be one.

There’s no shortage of search engines, and while Google is the most popular, it’s not the only one. There’s Bing, Duck Duck Go, and a bunch of other smaller ones out there. Google tends to be the most effective, but Duck Duck Go is a good example of one that’s growing, and caters to people who don’t want their details held, making it a privacy-focused search engine, complete with its own approach to AdWords.

However Google is a private company, and is not a public resource. It’s not government controlled, and we suspect that it could disconnect and delist specific websites if it wanted to. Rather than switch off search entirely, it would make more sense if Google just removed certain websites from its listings altogether, preventing its news crawlers and search listings from showing content from organisations who wanted it to pay.

It could also theoretically introduce a checkbox in its publishing system to force that. You may not realise it, but Google does offer publishers a number of ways to track and use its services, and this journalist wouldn’t put it past Google to add a little box saying “you agree not to pursue charges to Google for the linking of your content”, or something similar.

Of course, removing links to content that could be the best for the user comes to the detriment of the growth of any search engine, but it’s not the only problem if Google decided to leave Australia. While many businesses in Australia depend on Google to help make their sales every week, Google itself has products in Australia that would struggle to work the same way if Google left, helping to make Google’s threat of departure a big chest-beating bluff.

Google Home Hub review

Take the Google smart speakers and smart displays. Devices like the Google Nest Hub and Google Nest Audio are based entirely around Google search, because when you ask these gadgets a question, it needs to interpret that into a command. Searching for recipes couldn’t be done, and neither could searching for news or possibly even music.

If Google switched off search in Australia, you can expect every owner of Google smart speaker or smart display to have a somewhat useless brick in their home.

There’s also the matter of Android phones. Android is, of course, a Google product, but removing the power to search in a country would leave negatives for users of Android, which uses Google search in its operating system. You see, Google search is a deep part of Android, as the search mechanism can be found in so many places.

Google Search is in Android when you hold down the home button or trigger the Google Assistant, much like it is on the smart speakers. It’s in the left most screen on Google Pixel phones and other Android One devices, because that’s the Google Discovery screen media organisations are complaining about. It’s in the main web browser as you type in a query, and depending on the phone you have, it might even be an intrinsic part of the Android launcher, as well. Even Google’s keyboard is known to have it, with Gboard searching for GIFs.

We’re not sure if a Google search exodus in Australia would handicap Australian Android phones, but with around half the mobile market in Australia belonging to Android, it doesn’t seem like a chance the company would take. Huawei’s current phones serve as a good idea of what that might look like, with a version of Android that feels hamstrung because it’s not quite official.

Those are just a handful of the reasons it doesn’t seem like Google search would leave entirely, and misses out on Google’s web browser — Chrome — which uses Google search at the heart, as does Google’s other operating system, Chrome OS, seen on inexpensive educational computers known as Chromebooks. We’re sure there are ways Chrome could be modified for Australia if it needed to, but you get the point.

Basically, Google choosing to leave Australia wouldn’t be just a huge loss for Australia, but Google itself, and may seem too difficult to attempt, rather than merely handicap its search for Australians rather than simply comply.

HP Chromebook 11A G6 (2019)
Chromebooks like this one would possibly run into problems if Google took its search business elsewhere.

We need the ACCC and Google to work together

Ultimately, we need the two organisations to get along and work together, but also to have the government be aware that search in some ways needs to work independently of media.

Search is not meant to work at the behest of businesses, but rather alongside and very much as a middle ground.

Allowing larger organisations to determine how search is shaped will deliver a contrived and controlled experience that only helps larger organisations flourish, and not so much the small ones. It’s a risky move, and one that doesn’t make a lot of sense beyond lining the pockets of a big business.

As to the question of Google paying for links to webpages, it’s a deeper question that needs thought, though there are ways Google could solve it. For instance, rather than provide copy, it could shorten (truncate) what it reads, and automatically add a line “head to the website to find out more”, or something like that. Alternatively, it could just switch off News entirely, something it did in Spain.

Turning off Google in Australia is a system some argue won’t work, such as Damien Spry, who wrote just that on The Conversation last year, not to mention Google, which also claims the same. It’s an approach that only serves to hamper search, and risks changing the way many businesses make money in Australia, relying on Google for people to find and shop.

Ultimately, there are ways Google could deliver a better experience that helps people make the choice to read content at a news organisation’s website, rather than on the search engine itself, but we need the two to work together. Anything less will be the detriment to the people of Australia, and all because two organisations couldn’t come to a table for a talk.

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