Would a multi-billion dollar fine keep you up at night?
That’s the situation Google finds itself in this year.
In July 2018, the company was hit with a multi-billion dollar fine by the European Union for breaking anti-trust laws.
Unfortunately, it’s not the first time Google’s been in trouble with a regulatory body—and it likely won’t be the last.
But what does the EU’s fine against Google mean for the SEO industry?
We’ll answer those questions and more in this post.
The EU Vs. Google: Everything SEOs Need to Know
In the summer of 2018, the European Commission announced a 5 billion dollar (€4.3 billion) fine against Google for breaking the EU’s anti-trust laws.
According to the official announcement:
“The European Commission has fined Google €4.34 billion for breaching EU antitrust rules. Since 2011, Google has imposed illegal restrictions on Android device manufacturers and mobile network operators to cement its dominant position in general internet search.”
Specifically, the European authorities found three problems in Google’s practices:
1) Illegal tying of Google’s search and browser apps.
All Android devices come pre-installed with the Google Search app and the Google Chrome browser, making it more difficult for other companies to compete.
2) Illegal payments conditional on exclusive pre-installation of Google Search.
Money talks, and that includes with Google. They gave financial incentives to device manufacturers and mobile network operators on the condition that Google Search had exclusivity on their Android devices.
3) Illegal obstruction of development and distribution of competing Android operating systems.
Google prevented access to alternative versions of Android (called Android forks) that they hadn’t approved. Specifically, the European authorities found that this practice hurt Amazon: “Google’s conduct prevented a number of large manufacturers from developing and selling devices based on Amazon’s Android fork called ‘Fire OS.’”
For those of us with long memories, it all sounds a bit like the browser wars of the mid-90’s when Microsoft was under pressure to change.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that Google has encountered problems in Europe. In 2017, Google was hit with another 2.7 billion dollar anti-trust fine, this time relating to its online shopping.
As CNN reported: “The Commission said that Google acted illegally by giving priority placement in search results to its shopping service while relegating results from rivals to areas where potential buyers were much less likely to click.”
What This Fine Means for Google
Google won’t come away unscathed. Suffering billions of dollars in fines will hurt the company, and it has suffered damage to its share price as well.
But in the grand scheme of things, Google is far from going out of business.
However, given that Google’s market dominance seems unlikely to change any time soon, it’s very likely that regulators will continue to investigate the company for misconduct.
While predicting the future is impossible, there are good reasons to think more fines and enforcement actions may happen in the future. Let’s consider each factor:
- Google’s market position: Google is dominant in several major markets including search and mobile operating systems. As long as Google is perceived as a monopoly player, it’s likely to attract significant attention from regulators.
- Google’s acquisitions: As Google continues to acquire more companies and expand its operations, it’ll continue to be perceived as a dominant player in the market.
- Increased skepticism toward big tech companies: A decade ago, large internet companies were widely admired. But today? The same firms are being investigated and fined by regulatory bodies around the world.
GDPR: The Next Big Regulatory Challenge
It’s clear that the EU is more than willing to hand out large fines for anti-trust practices. More recently, it has also begun enforcing General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
GDPR is a comprehensive privacy protection regulation that the EU implemented in May 2018. It imposes new restrictions on how companies can collect and process customer data, and equips consumers with additional privacy rights that companies must adhere to.
GDPR requires that businesses honor specific rights for the “data subject” (i.e. your prospect, potential email subscriber, customer):
- The right to withdraw consent. This expectation is especially important for marketers—if a user wants to unsubscribe, you must follow that requirement.
- The right to access. You have to be able to provide a copy of all records held about a person on request.
- The right to restrict processing. If a user objects to the use of analytics or other kinds of data processing, this request must be followed.
Failure to follow GDPR requirements can lead to significant fines of up to 20 million euros or 4% of annual global turnover, whichever is highest.
Even though GDPR is limited to Europe, many companies around the world have been forced to update their privacy policies and practices as a result.
For additional insight on GDPR and your obligations, consult the “Guide to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)” by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office. If the EU is significant to your business, you may want to consult a qualified legal professional.
The Implications of GDPR
To protect your company and pursue your marketing goals in the wake of GDPR, you need to demonstrate a legitimate interest.
In essence, can you show that your processing of customer data is necessary to fulfill an individual’s interest? For example, if you gathered names and email addresses to deliver a white paper, using that personal information to deliver the white paper would be in bounds. But using that same information to repeatedly cold call the prospect? Probably not.
For SEO, I see two implications of these new expectations:
- Avoid a “general purpose” marketing approach. A general purpose email list may no longer be good enough. Why? There’s no way to demonstrate that everyone on your general email list is interested in hearing from your company and receiving offers.
- Create multiple lists based on lead magnets. Overall, you need to be more thoughtful about your approach to inbound marketing and ensure that you’re taking steps to earn permission to market to prospects. To achieve this goal, I recommend using “content upgrades” to build lists around certain topics.
5 Ways to Achieve SEO Success in a More Regulated World
1. Rethink Your Reliance on Google
It’s important to diversify your online marketing efforts, and to not put all your eggs in one (Google’s) basket.
In addition to SEO, are you also building a list, and getting traffic from social media? If the answer is no, you face greater exposure to suffering if Google suffers further.
While Google looks robust at the moment, suffering more large fines may harm the company’s ability to remain the most popular search engine. And while it’s the largest player in search, it’s not the only player. I recommend increasing your SEO efforts in Bing, and if you’re an e-commerce firm, optimizing your Amazon listings to insulate yourself from Google.
Likewise, look into alternatives to other Google services that you use regularly, such as Microsoft Office as an alternative to Google Docs.
2. Increase Backlink Building and Monitoring
While Google pioneered backlinks in search engines, it’s no longer the only company to use this as a ranking signal. As a result, I’d suggest increasing your attention to your backlink performance.
If you report to clients, emphasize backlink metrics as a counterweight to other SEO measures like SERP rankings.
With Monitor Backlinks, you can view your entire current backlink portfolio in a few clicks at any time, just by clicking on the “Backlinks” tab. See what it looks like in the screenshot below:
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3. Carry Out a Self-Assessment
This is especially important for larger companies. If you’re marketing a product or service that’s perceived to be in a monopoly position, tread carefully—regulatory authorities tend to look closely at those organizations for anti-trust violations.
Further, regulators are likely to expect large companies to use their resources to develop and staff a GDPR compliance department.
4. Review Your Marketing Partnerships and Agreements
The EU fine against Google highlighted that using your market power in partnerships is a problem.
If you have marketing or product integrations with other companies, take the time to review those agreements. Ask yourself: Am I forcing my partners (or giving them suspicious incentives) to prefer my company over others? If so, take the time now to make improvements.
5. Manage Privacy Compliance Seriously
Privacy expectations are essential to meet for two reasons. First, you may have legal obligations to protect privacy, such as GDPR.
Second, increasing customer expectations for privacy protection means you may lose customers or your reputation if you’re sloppy about meeting those expectations.
There are several ways to manage privacy compliance. If you’re a small company, consider hiring an outside consultant to do an annual review of your privacy policies and practices. If you run a larger company, assign privacy compliance to one of your managers.
Google’s recent difficulties with the EU means the flow-on effects to SEOs are unavoidable.
But with these strategies, you can adjust your marketing and business efforts to suit this new era of digital regulation and protection.
Bruce Harpham helps enterprise software companies grow faster through content marketing. Find out more about his SaaS Growth Roadmap service.