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In 2020, we saw the warning signs. In 2021, is it time to stop trusting Google?

Towards the start of this year, Rand Fishkin’s SparkToro caused a minor Internet storm when they highlighted that two thirds of Google searches ended without a click.

SEOs were outraged. Some were outraged with Google for stealing traffic whilst others were outraged with SparkToro; complaining about what they claimed was shoddy analysis and a questionable conclusion. Eventually, this prompted a second tweet from Fishkin to address some of these issues.

Ultimately, I found myself on SparkToro’s side of the fence. Sure, Google is sending more traffic than ever to websites… but isn’t there just more traffic than ever anyway? It’s like claiming that the best year ever for slipper sales was 2020 without acknowledging that we really didn’t need shoes as much that year.

One of the big problems with SEO is the gap between what SEOs say to the outside world and what they say to each other. There’s a rush to say the “right thing” and a stampede to crush out voices that speak some of the uncomfortable truths.

Behind the scenes of the industry though, there was definite unrest and several SEOs shared with me their secret fear – if clients stop trusting Google, how can they keep those clients spending money on SEO?

And trust is a theme that has continued to dog Google all the way through 2021.

Google lost its 2.4 billion Euro antitrust case with the EU, found guilty of manipulating the contents of search results to promote their own products over those of competitors – a concept known as “self preferencing”. Of course, Google is likely to appeal this decision up to the ECJ; this case is in fact already an appeal to a 2017 ruling made on the basis of a complaint almost a decade before.

So, the EU is slow, the law is an ass, and there’s nothing new under the sun… or is there?

One thing that I noticed in stark contrast to the start of 2021, when I saw SEOs rallying to defend Google, was that now they are lining up to call on Google to put its house in order. The tech press, equally, has been pretty damning – maybe because their own publications have been left fighting for crumbs of advertising revenue thanks to Google News.

What comes next? Well, assuming that Google doesn’t win its appeal (or the appeal after that or the appeal after that…) then being forced to play fair on shopping could be just the start. Google has pushed into hotel bookings, job search, and a number of other sectors, all at the cost of other businesses that were happily occupying those markets before Google came crashing in…

Is it possible we may be about to witness “The Great Unbundling”? Will Google really be forced to break apart its search monolith or will regulators be satisfied just to see other people’s listings appearing at the top of the page? The problem with that idea for Google is a difficult one – how to manipulate the search results just enough to keep regulators happy without interfering with the search algorithms that are fundamental to its success or making things worse in the process… Whilst we might be a long way away from consumer confidence in Google waning, with 80% of Alphabet’s revenue coming from search engine advertising it is surely a concern for Google where digital marketers and agencies will advise clients to spend their budgets and high-profile news that you can’t trust Google doesn’t help.

Come on Google, you’ve got to pay for those fine somehow…

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