In just about any industry, having a market share of 92 percent would plainly constitute a monopoly. (In fact, according to some economists, any time a company commands more than 25 percent of a given market, it can begin to exert anti-competitive pressure.) And that’s the position that the search giant Google finds itself in.
Statcounter, the analytics company, has the data. As of July 2019, Alphabet’s Google search engine commanded 92.19 percent of online queries. Coming in second place was Microsoft’s Bing search engine, with a whopping share of 2.61 percent. Yahoo, the one time champion, didn’t even crack 2 percent of the market.
Google’s astonishing stranglehold on search provides it with an extraordinary amount of power, both economic and cultural. The search engine is by far the largest generator of online ad revenue; in 2019, Google expects to book nearly $46 billion in advertising dollars. In second place is the social media giant Facebook, projecting more than $25 billion in ad takings this year. Those two sites essentially constitute an online advertising duopoly, gobbling up ever larger percentages of Internet ad spending. Other sites — be they newspapers, also-ran social media networks and search engines, or entertainment sites — have seen ad revenues decline as the duopoly grows ever stronger. This situation does not a healthy marketplace make.
Google’s search dominance creates a positive feedback loop whereby competitors are unable to gain a foothold. Advertisers, after all, want to place spots where the eyeballs are. And the eyeballs are at Google. So, other search engines are unable to scare up enough revenue to challenge Google meaningfully. Meanwhile, the company has gotten in trouble, notably in Europe, for favoring its own sites on its search engine. Talk about the company store.
And then there’s the matter of Google’s immense cultural and political power. Billions of Google searches occur a day. The company’s algorithm, which (opaquely) determines which results are favored and which are suppressed, therefore has a profound effect on what information people have access to — or don’t. This can be both witting and unwitting. There is not necessarily a knowing conspiracy to favor certain sites and punish others; that could just be the bloodless work of the almighty algorithm. But it’s odd that Google’s auto-complete search, for instance, suggests searching “Instagram,” “Mighty Ducks” and “net worth,” when one types in the name “Jussie Smollett.” None of the top nine suggested queries is “hoax.”
State attorneys general, both Democratic and Republican, are standing up and taking notice.
“[A] bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general plans to launch as soon as next month a multistate antitrust investigation into major technology companies, including such household names as Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Alphabet, which owns Google,” this newspaper reported on Aug. 20. “Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, and seven others met in June with U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr ‘to talk about the real concerns consumers across the country have with Big Tech companies stifling competition on the internet.’ The office of New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, released a statement acknowledging that ‘we continue to engage in bipartisan conversations about the unchecked power of large tech companies.’”
There are very real concerns about the immense market power of tech companies from Amazon to Apple. We seem to be living in an era of profound market concentration and ever-growing monopolies. Reining in Google might be a good place to start.