Updated on Feb. 2, 2021.
We’re living in the past, the present, and the future, all at once — and it hurts!
There are still publications trying to survive with printed material (the past) while almost everything is available online, for free, instantaneously (the present). And since offering everything-for-free is not a sustainable way of running a business, online content creators are trying to find different revenue sources (the future)— with limited success.
Where will that lead us? That’s the million-dollar question (more like billions), but one thing is sure: The current debate in Australia is at the center of what the future will bring.
Before jumping into how twisted the world of online content and search engines has become, let’s quickly summarize the original benefits and symbiotic relations between websites, online content, and search engines — to understand better how they have been deviating from their raison-d’être.
Over the last few years, Google has gotten far from its original mission. It is hurting content producers and may bring troubles to Google itself, as we see in Australia. In fact, Google is currently on a course that can only be described as shooting-oneself-in-the-foot.
The Basic Principle Behind a Free Search Engine for Businesses and Other Online Content Creators
For the sake of keeping things simple, an online search engine is roughly the equivalent of the now-mostly-dead yellow pages phone books.
Your business was listed in the yellow pages for free, as long as you had a business phone line. You could pay an extra to get a more visible presence in this big business phone book distributed for free in every household. The goal of businesses listed in these yellow pages was to either get a phone call or a physical face-to-face visit.
Similarly, nowadays, businesses want to get traffic from online search engines — but there’s an extra step. In many cases, these businesses are trying to get online visitors from the search engine to their website in order to get a phone call or an in-person visit. Of course, websites provide more functionalities than a listing or an ad in tree-killing yellow pages: You can perform ‘actions’ right there, right now, like purchasing an item. It’s much more practical.
Just like in yellow pages, businesses can pay for an improved listing in search engine results.
At the beginning of the Google-era, life was great for small and medium-sized businesses. I was managing my own small retail business at the time, and I was thrilled with Google. Paying for Adwords (now called Google Ads) was driving clients to my business at a much lower cost of acquisition than the yellow pages, which kept increasing ad prices as they were gradually providing lesser results. I never quite understood how dumb and short-sighted this yellow pages strategy was — but that’s a different story!
The Basic Advantage of a Search Engine for Internet Users
As long as you have an internet connection, you can freely visit every website available around the world. Cool! But that is like saying you have access to a giant shopping mall with billions of doors or a library with every single book ever published in the world. You need to know which door will give you access to what you are looking for — or where is the book you want to read. Otherwise, you would have to spend a few lifetimes trying to find it!
Search engines are providing value on 2 fronts. First, it tells you which door leads to what — or where each book is. Second, it helps you identify the best door because, in theory, the website coming at the top of organic search results is the most reliable website for what you are looking for.
It’s useful, valuable, pure, honest. No evil, as Google would say.
All Hell Broke Loose with Search Engine Marketing and Google’s Appetite for Insane Profits
Like every other pure thing on Earth, it didn’t remain like that for long.
The Value of Google as a Tool for Business and Content Creators
Eventually, yellow pages stopped bringing traffic to my small business. Besides word-of-mouth, Google rapidly became the main (if not almost the exclusive) source of new clients. I had to invest more in Google Adwords (now Google Ads), and so did all my competitors. Soon, the cost of new client acquisition via Google ads became significantly higher than it was via yellow pages before the Google-era.
With such a high advertising cost, it became much more important to show up in organic search results, which are Google search's free results. Therefore, everybody started investing in improving their search result ranking. But where there’s money, there’s dirt.
It became (and it remains) a game of cat and mouse, with webmasters and search engine marketers constantly trying to outsmart Google’s algorithm determining what website will be listed first for certain search keywords.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for small businesses to have a fighting chance in such a highly competitive game with high stakes. Yet, it’s often a question of life and death for businesses, especially small and medium-sized ones (SMEs). If you don’t show up in Google results, you are pretty much dead right off the gate! SMEs cannot advertise during the Superbowl to increase brand awareness and recognition!
Meanwhile, Google always wants more profits. Of course. Always more! So what started as a couple of Adwords posts clearly identified at the top of organic search results is now pretty much a full page of ads that makes organic search results almost irrelevant — and these paid ads are now designed to look much more like regular search results. So much for ‘no evil’!
“Why Google’s Search Page Redesign Is the Death of SEO: It’s clear they only care about maximizing clicks to paid advertisers.” ~Entrepreneur.com
Let’s take a straightforward example. While doing research to write this article, I typed ‘organic search result’ in Google search. Here’s is what I got.
There is not even one single organic search research on the first page I see in my desktop browser!
Nowadays, the best reason to invest in search engine optimization is simply that a page with ‘good content’ helps reduce your cost of Google ads. The quality of the page advertised is factored into the cost of the ad.
So, for businesses, it costs even more. And more. And more.
It’s to the point that I think we could compare Google to the good old racket of ‘protection money’ you have to pay to be ‘allowed’ to operate your business in a mafia-controlled neighborhood, except that the entire world is the Google-mafia-neighborhood.
If Google doesn’t start to seriously fix the problems it created, it should expect increasing calls for government regulations. Already Canada is talking about following in Australia’s footsteps. Google — stop shooting yourself in the foot and start acting responsibly!
The Value of Google as a Trusted Source of Information for Internet Users
While Google is highjacking businesses’ wallets, it is also gradually losing its original high value for users.
For an internet user, Google search results have become a quagmire of ads — and I am using ‘quagmire’ as a substitute for a word starting with cluster and ending with the f-word!
In many cases, nowadays, I find it hard to get what I am looking for because all I receive in search results is a bunch of ads from people who want to hijack the real search results and send me to websites that have little to do with my search query — while Google is doing its best to make these ads look like normal search results.
Let’s take an obvious example. Try googling ‘free website hosting.’ What do you get? I see a full screen of ads with links sending me to websites promoting non-free website hosting services with, of course, a whole bunch of affiliate links. It doesn’t even bring me to a hosting company! These ads bring me to a web page where somebody is trying to make money writing articles with affiliate links. That is not what I searched for.
So… On the one hand, Google is no longer a tool replacing yellow pages; it looks like a racket replacing protection money; and on the other hand, users are increasingly inundated with questionable ads while organic search results are becoming invisible.
And that is not even the worst part of it!
Hang in there! Bare with me. I’ll get to Australia vs. Google in a second!
Google Is No Longer Sending Traffic to Your Website!
To make sure that messed-up things would really be messed up, Google’s executives decided that on top of everything we’ve already mentioned, they would steal your content.
Remember that the main reason for a website owner to publish good content on a website is to bring traffic, which nowadays relies increasingly on ads. But Google’s new moves are now providing complete answers to users, using your content without sending traffic to your website.
Let’s look at an obvious example. I want to know what the acronym SCUBA means. In Google search results, I get a snippet with all the info I need.
I got the answer I was looking for right within Google search results. Do I need to click through to the Underwater Kinetics website, where somebody took the time to provide the definition of the SCUBA acronym? No, I do not. And I will not.
As you notice in the screen capture above, I can further click on a bunch of other related questions and learn a lot about scuba diving without ever leaving the Google search result page.
I don’t see how this Google feature could be labeled as anything but theft.
Google provides ‘complete answers’ directly to the person using Google search, by grabbing the content on somebody else’s website. The consequence is that people no longer need to go to the original website.
I really do not understand how Google could think this is an acceptable business practice. Google says that it provides a better user experience. Well… Duh! I would be providing a great customer experience too if I could steal other businesses' work as much as I wanted, with no consequences!
To add insult to injury, websites have to write long-form content to obtain a high-quality score in Google’s algorithm. This does not contribute to a good user experience when this user is simply looking for a quick answer to a simple question. Nowadays, even when you are looking for a very simple answer, you typically end up on a website with a lot of blah-blah in which you have to dig to find the answer you were searching for. This is due to the Google algorithm putting a value on long-form content in one way or another. The more blah-blah, the more authority you must have on the topic — or something like that. It’s very annoying.
So Google found the solution to the problem it created: Stealing your content to provide these short answers directly inside Google search results.
Let’s think about this. In order for me to have a better chance at showing up in Google search results, Google is forcing me to write long-form articles that do not provide a good user experience and, then, fix the problem of my web page being loaded with too much content by stealing my content to provide it in a format that I would have used if Google hadn’t forced me to produce an unfriendly format to start with.
It would be funny if it weren’t so disgusting! It’s immoral. And thanks to Australia and other jurisdictions, it may become illegal.
Online Content, News, Google, and Australia
So what is brewing in Australia?
Australia is introducing a world-first law to make Google, Facebook, and potentially other tech companies pay media outlets for their news content. Initially, the law would only apply to Google and Facebook.
“The draft legislation for Australia’s digital news Code which is currently before the parliament includes a controversial requirement that tech giants Google and Facebook pay publishers for linking to their content — not merely for displaying snippets of text.” Source: TechCrunch.
Does it make sense? Would it help?
The Australian Solution to Fix Google: A Good Principle or A Misguided Solution?
On the surface, we have to applaud Australia’s decision to start addressing the inappropriate ways Google uses other people’s content.
Creating content is not free. In fact, in an ocean of misinformation, it is becoming increasingly difficult and, therefore, expensive to create and distribute reliable, credible content.
Somebody must pay for good content, or we will end up with nothing but fake news and scams.
But who? And how?
Unfortunately, the Australian approach seems to be missing the mark for two main reasons.
a) Australia’s new legislation wants Google to pay for ‘links’
Links to online content are not the problem.
When Google provides me, the user, with a link to a web page that answers the question I typed in the Google search box, Google provides value to me and the owner on the website where I will end up. If that were all that Google was doing, it would be fine. It would fulfill their original mission.
The major issues with Google nowadays are as described above and summarized here:
- A ridiculous number of well-camouflaged ads making real search results almost irrelevant and therefore, converting Google into either a scam artist (for users) or an extortioner (for businesses and other online content creators).
- The use by Google of your content directly inside search results and, therefore, cutting the need to send any traffic to the content creator's website that paid to produce the content.
Neither of these 2 issues appears to be properly addressed in the Australian legislation.
If Google has to pay for merely displaying a link to your website, imagine where that could lead us. I am linking to the BBC and TechCrunch websites in this article. Would I eventually have to pay them?
In France, a couple of days ago, Google reached an agreement to pay publishers for their content, but the “French law and the EU copyright directive do not require consent for the use of links or abridged extracts, adding that it’s paying for online use on its surfaces for publisher content that goes beyond links and very short extracts.” Source: TechCrunch.
b) Australia is Strictly Focused on Providing Help to Traditional News Media Outlets
Providing help for traditional news outlets to survive is a good goal, but it should not be dealt with in isolation. Every online content producer is facing that same problem.
If I create a one-page website providing scuba diving information and Google uses my definition of the word ‘scuba’ in its search results while sending no traffic to my website, it is not acceptable. Legislation trying to fix issues with the production of valuable online content should not be limited to traditional news media outlets. If so, it will simply create an additional problem on top of all the issues we’ve discussed in this article.
We understand that the Australian legislation came from lobbying efforts by giant media companies like those in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire — some of which appears to be, themselves, the source of misinformation! And that is, in itself, part of the problem. A self-centered Google giant is fighting against a traditional media self-center giant. That ain’t gonna fix the problems the internet is facing. Both giants seem incapable of seeing the bigger long-term picture.
Problems Faced by Traditional News Media Outlets
The problems that news media businesses are facing go much beyond Google’s questionable business practices. For the most part, traditional news media outlets have simply moved the distribution of their content from a printed format to a website without changing much of anything else. Hiding content behind a paywall seems to be a popular solution.
Applying to websites a subscription model designed for a print format covering a certain geographical region is like trying to fix issues related to riding a horse on a highway in 2021. We use cars nowadays! Through the internet, I have access to news from all over the world and from numerous sources. I have no interest in paying a subscription to every news source around the world — financially, I cannot!
We will not ‘save’ traditional news media outlets by putting a small plaster on a broken limp.
The news media businesses need to get back to the drawing board and figure out a totally different business model. I suggest starting with a blue ocean canvas. News media companies are currently engaged on a road that is a cul-de-sac. Providing them with a few more yards of asphalt doesn’t change the fact that it leads nowhere. They need a blue ocean strategy to redefine their raison-d’être, their target market, and their business model.
It reminds me of the radio broadcasting industry in Canada a while back. When FM radio stations started to appear, the Canadian government designed all kinds of measures to help AM radio stations. This was a huge waste of time and resources designed to keep everybody in the past. Music radio stations eventually all moved to FM. Stop living in the past!
Giant Solutions Killing Small Businesses and Online Content Creators
There is another serious issue with both the Australian and the French approaches.
In both cases, a giant search engine company is making deals with giant traditional news media businesses. Where does that leave small and medium-sized businesses and online content creators?
The promises that the internet would have democratizing effects are being thwarted. In fact, if we are not vigilant, we could end up with the exact opposite, with no way for a small business or content creator to ever hope to have any kind of visibility.
Efforts to solve problems created by Google must include solutions for all online content creators, not just for giant, traditional, political-financing news media companies.
Google’s search engine business practices have moved far away from their original intent. They need to be reviewed for the sake of online content producers, internet users, and Google itself. Google should be responsible enough to initiate this process, but since they are not, we should welcome government initiatives to force them to rethink their role.
However, such solutions must be appropriate for all online content creators, not just giant traditional news media companies.
For instance, in the case currently raised in Australia and the agreement reached in France earlier this week, the proposed solution is too incomplete to be appropriate. It is only trying to fix issues faced by traditional media outlets, creating additional problems for other online content creators.
Otherwise, the problem with news media outlets is much deeper than online search results and news sharing. Traditional news media outlets are facing a perfect storm while heading full speed on a cul-de-sac ending at the edge of a cliff. News media outlets need to redefine their own out-of-date business model before blaming Google for an unfair one.