Opinion: What will happen to retail if Google exits Australia?

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We’ve all read the news: the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is trying to make Google and Facebook pay news sites, and Google has, in turn, threatened to withdraw search from Australia. Would Google really give up their $4.3 billion in revenue? That’s a big hit to take. But they may take a global view. What’s the impact of an Australian precedent – what happens when publishers in USA, Germany, Canada, et all come to Google with their hands open? The EU is already threatening to follow Australia’s lead. 

I’m focusing on retailers here, not going into my rather strong opinions. I’ll just link to an article which summarises it – no wait. I won’t. Perhaps the site I’m linking to will jump on the gravy train and start charging Octomedia (publisher of this masthead) for linking to them. Since the ACCC is looking to break the free use of linking – the HT (hypertext) in HTTP – who knows what the future holds? 

But that aside, let’s imagine: what happens if Google search vanishes? How will retail suffer?

Short version: a lot short-term, and less, but not none, long-term. 

People will rapidly change their search patterns. Bing is the heir presumptive. DuckDuckGo gets lots of media hype, but the usage numbers are tiny and, frankly, their search just isn’t quite there. Bing partly or fully powers most of the second tier engines (Yahoo, Ecosia, etc), as well as DuckDuckGo ads, so it’s largely a Bing game. 

This could easily turn into a Google vs Bing debate. The problem here, and this is a fundamental problem, I’m just not very familiar with Bing’s features. It’s not just me. Most of the industry isn’t. So best case, assuming Bing is identical to Google, we have a few months of chaos as media and SEO teams across the country adapt. But it’s not identical. 

I do know that Bing largely copies whatever Google is doing, which means they are always a step or two behind, and largely lacking in innovation. 

Even if Bing and Google were matched feature for feature, there’s the data. More sophisticated advertisers will be using Google Ads audiences which, for exmaple, allow you to show ads to only new customers and not returning customers, or target certain demographics – if you only sell women’s jeans, why show an ad when a man searches “jeans”?. Bing has a similar feature. But, their identity graph (the ability to identify users) and do the matching for those audiences isn’t and won’t be anywhere near that of Google’s. They simply don’t have the footprint and data sources that Google does. This will see a lowering of the ad quality, and a lessening of overall advertising effectiveness. 

So, best case, for ads, we’ll have a slightly inferior version which will take a few months for everyone to adapt to, and it will drop effectiveness slightly. Not great, but not devastating. 

On the SEO front, the Bing algo is less sophisticated than Google’s. It’s simply easier to game – some old school SEO tricks that don’t work on Google still work on Bing. Most black hat SEOs (cheap viagra, anyone?) don’t pay much attention to Bing due to its small user base, but that would likely change fast as it goes from < 5 per cent to > 80 per cent market share. It’s already good-but-not-as-good-as-Google search results would likely degrade as the ever persistent spammers have a field day.

Retailers who also sell outside Australia have a double burden. They will need to run Bing for Australia, and Google outside Australia. That increases the workload for their ads teams and, from an SEO perspective if they have a single domain, they need to hedge their bets. Do we follow a slightly dodgy SEO strategy to appease Bing for the Aussies, or a cleaner one to appease Google for the international folk? 

On the plus side, some international retailers selling to Australia will decide Australia is too small a market to bother adopting Bing and so will withdraw or downscale their ads, which could see (slightly) less international competition. 

Retailers will survive, although some retailers who are very dependent on Google – and I know a few big ones making over half their revenue from Google – could take a hit. All this in the time when we are adjusting to a post-Covid life, and the looming end of JobKeeper. 

For the smaller retailers and traditional retailers who are already struggling to adapt to the rapid acceleration of online, it’s just one more pretty big challenge, just so we can replace one big USA tech giant with another. 

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