Risk Mitigation on Google Leaving Australia

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A growing number of reports of Google leaving Australia have been published since early in 2021, following Google’s response to a proposed new law that would require the company to pay for displaying or aggregating news articles. These headlines can induce fear among businesses that see a lot of their business coming from search engine marketing and search results on Google.

But the reality is much more nuanced, and while it does highlight the need for businesses to be cautious of depending on a single platform, the response needed from businesses right now is caution rather than panic.

Is Google Leaving Australia?

The short answer is probably not. Google have threatened to pull their Search service from Australia, but at this stage it is only a challenge to the Australian Government in response to the proposed News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code.

Why Is Google Threatening to Leave Australia?

The current threat is an escalation of matters going back to 2017 when the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) recommended a voluntary code for media businesses and digital platforms to follow. The aim was to redress an imbalance of power that exists between publishers and platforms such as Google and Facebook. In April 2020, the ACCC announced that a voluntary code was unlikely to succeed. The Australian Government then directed the ACCC to begin drafting a mandatory code, with the first draft of a news media bargaining code released in July 2020.

The News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code Bill was introduced to parliament in December 2020 and is expected to be voted into law in the first quarter of 2021.

Of primary concern is that the Bargaining Code Bill would require Google–and eventually other digital platforms–to pay media businesses for including links to their news stories in search results. The rate would be negotiated between the digital platforms and publishers but would have to be a fair price. Additionally, Google would have to give publishers 14 days advance notice of any changes to the algorithm that could affect media businesses.

Google is working with the Australian Government to find a more equitable compromise, including the Google News Showcase, which Google claims has already signed on more than 400 publications globally. Google hasn’t directly threatened to leave Australia, instead saying that the Bargaining Code Bill in its current form would break search, leaving Google with no choice but to make Google Search unavailable in Australia.

Would This Also Affect Other Google Apps and Services?

Google is no longer just a search engine. Over the years it has added many other services and apps, from YouTube through to Gmail, Google Maps, Ads, and a productivity suite similar to Microsoft Office. Some of these are not directly connected to search, though Google does have 15 tools that are more tightly coupled with search. Because Mel Silva, Managing Director of Google Australia, specifically referred to Google Search not being available in Australia we would have to consider that the associated search tools would also no longer be available. But other services, tools, and apps, could remain available and functional.

Almost 90 percent of Google Australia’s revenue in 2019 came from advertising, and data points from usage of other Google services and tools is used to ensure ads shown to users are more relevant. With no ability to show ads in search results to Australians, it might not be viable for Google to maintain a physical presence in Australia, but this does not mean that Australians would not still have access to other Google tools and services.

Can’t I Just Use a VPN?

In theory, Australian residents could use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to access google.com, or even just call up the Google site without a VPN. It all depends on what Google does should they make Search unavailable in Australia. However, neither of these will work the same as Google Search currently does. Google Search always tries to show the most relevant results, and your location is an important signal for relevancy. It’s why you can add “near me” to almost any query to find businesses and services that are close by.

Aside from VPNs usually being a subscription-based service, they also mask your actual location by allowing you to choose the geographic location of the server you connect through. So, instead of Google knowing that you are in Melbourne, it would see you as being in New York, Amsterdam, or whatever location outside of Australia you have chosen. And most of the search results you see would be most relevant to that location.

This wouldn’t be an issue for many search queries but would make finding local businesses and services more difficult.

What Alternatives Are There?

Google has long dominated search; google as a verb for searching for information online was first used in the late 90s, and added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006. But Bing, Yahoo, and the privacy-focused DuckDuckGo are all viable alternatives to Google, even if their current market share is a fraction of that of Google.

Screenshot of DuckDuckGo Search Results

While the user interface for each alternative isn’t what you are used to with Google, many of the features such as images, local results, and videos are still there. The results and layout might differ, but you will still be able to access the same information you do using Google.

Should I Switch to Advertising Elsewhere?

Google Ads in search results are not the only form of advertising offered by Google, though they are what most businesses are familiar with, and the one that delivers the best results. Google also offers various ad types that can be displayed on participating websites and mobile apps through their AdSense and AdMob platforms.

But the risk of Google Search no longer being available in Australia does highlight the importance of any business not limiting their advertising to a single platform or publisher. There is no need to immediately switch all your advertising to other search engines or platforms, since even if Google is not able to reach a satisfactory compromise with the Australian Government, the disappearance of Google Search from Australia won’t be quick.

However, if your digital advertising is not already spread across multiple search engines and platforms, it is something you need to start exploring. Our PPC specialists will gladly discuss options and collaborate with you at creating a winning online advertising campaign that doesn’t depend on a single platform.

What Is Likely to Happen?

In October 2020, The Australia Institute published a report in which they analysed the impact of Google leaving Australia. They also considered likely scenarios of how Google might respond if they are unable to reach a compromise on the Bargaining Code Bill. The most likely scenario would be that Google withdraws or curtails its Google News service in Australia, which could also affect other aspects of Search.

There is precedent for this, with Google shutting down Google News in Spain in 2014. And while there is a risk of traffic to the sites of large and small news sites being affected by this, this was not the case in Spain, where the decrease in total traffic was deemed to be small.

More recently, Google did reach an agreement with the French Government to start paying local publishers, but only for the use or inclusion of content that goes beyond links and short snippets.

Whatever Google decides to do, it will remain crucial for businesses to avoid an over-reliance on a single platform or service for their marketing and online visibility.

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