Google is quietly enlisting the help of small businesses to protect the nearly $2 trillion company from antitrust regulations. In response to congressional bills like the “Ending Platform Monopolies Act,” which would ban platform owners from favoring their own services over the competition, Google is telling small business owners that these bills would hurt their ability to find customers online and that they should contact their congressperson about the issue.
We’ve seen Google do political action before, usually in the form of headline-grabbing blog posts from CEO Sundar Pichai defending the latest product-bundling scheme. The strategy here seems new, though; rather than writing a public blog post, Google is quietly targeting users who have registered business listings on Google Maps. These users report receiving unsolicited emails and an “action item” in the Google Business Profile UI that both link to Google’s new anti-antitrust site.
Both the email and Google Business action item beg for a click, saying, “New laws may impact businesses. Proposed legislation could make it harder to find your business online.” Both items link to this site, which is full of scary language imploring users to “stay up-to-date on proposed legislation that could impact your business.” The site recommends concerned users sign up for Google’s new political action mailing list, with the sign-up form saying, “By clicking this button, I consent that Google can contact me about legislative and regulatory issues, 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 can be pretty hard to follow for normal people. The site talks around nondescript “legislation” that will hurt businesses and repeatedly refers to “these bills” without ever naming which bills it’s talking about. It’s only after clicking through some “more information” links at the bottom that you’ll finally discover the subject of the page by reading through the linked press releases talking about the specific bits of proposed laws for search engines, ad platforms, and app stores.
After offering the usual platitudes about the importance of small businesses during the pandemic, Google’s site frames its resistance to antitrust legislation as a grassroots movement, saying, “Some of you have also expressed concerns about proposed regulations in Congress that would have unintended consequences for your business and could disrupt many of the digital tools you rely on every day.”
Google lays out some bullet points explaining how having to compete individually in each market would hurt small businesses:
If passed, these bills could 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 business hours) 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.
- Hurting your productivity if Gmail, Docs, and Calendar are split up and they no longer work together seamlessly.
The site also includes the above image, which claims that limiting Google Search’s ability to promote Google products over the competition would completely kill rich search results. The “before” and “after” screenshot shows the usual rich search result (powered by Google Maps) with bigger text, customer rating information, open 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 doesn’t address why Google Maps and rich results would be so closely tied together and why it couldn’t just show rich search results from a different local info provider, like whoever the top result is. Google has an entire “structured data format” specifically so that sites can supply rich search results, and Google Search regularly shows customer ratings and pricing info from sites like Facebook, Yelp, and Tripadvisor. The only difference is that information is not formatted as prominently as it is in Google Maps, and it’s not pinned to the top of the page. Figuring out how to supply Google Search with third-party map data does not seem like an impossible task, especially when Google’s mission statement as a company is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
We’ve signed up for the mailing list and will let you know if we encounter any more interesting FUD.