Google has threatened to “stop providing search” in Australia if the federal government continues with a new code to force big digital platforms to pay for displaying local news content. Google has confirmed that this wouldn’t affect any of the company’s other services, such as YouTube, Gmail or Google drive.
The threat came as Google’s Australian managing director, Mel Silva, told a Senate committee the new code would “would set an untenable precedent” and create an “unmanageable financial and operational risk” if it were to become law.
What would it mean to not have Google search in Australia?
“Unfortunately, preparing for that worst-case scenario would result in users landing on a Google search page when they put that URL in but then being presented with a screen that tells them we’re unable to offer the service in Australia,” Silva said when asked what it meant to “stop making Google search available in Australia”.
Google has shut down services like this before. And for similar reasons. In 2014 Google shut down its News service in Spain after the government passed a law requiring Google to pay a fee for links and excerpts of news articles. Users were met with a simple message saying the service had been closed. In a similar fashion, Australians may have to change the default search engines on their phones and computers.
But shutting down Google search could be highly disruptive not just to consumers. Google’s search algorithm, combined with other products like Google Maps, enable it to provide contextual answers such as a local plumber, shop opening times and directions. Google also powers the search functions on many websites, including the Guardian.
A more fragmented search market could also mean businesses have to actively work harder to be seen. They might have to ensure their services are compliant with a number of different search engines, and advertise across them. And the loss of localised results would likely make Google search results less relevant even for users who do find their way around a geo-block.
What are the alternatives to Google search?
Microsoft’s Bing is second in the Australian search market behind Google. It also powers Yahoo’s search engine, which ranks third, as well as a number of other search engines. Launched about a decade ago, it is one of the best resourced competitors to Google and so one of the most full featured, having the ability to search with voice, and simple tools like timezones and a calculator.
Another option, which some may remember from the 1990s, is Dogpile.com. It’s a “meta search engine”, which means it enables users to search multiple search engines at the same time. This can be useful as search engines all have strengths and weaknesses, either due to the resources available or their own policies.
Because of Google’s dominance, many search engines are built around a core idea, feature or principle. So depending on what your priorities are, there are a number of other options.
DuckDuckGo is well known for being a privacy-oriented search engine. It claims not to collect or store personal information, or track users. The flipside of this, however, is a lack of personalisation. Theoretically we should all get similar results if we search for the same thing. Google searches for DuckDuckGo appear to have ticked up since the threat was made.
Ecosia is a social business, runs on renewable energy and plants trees using the income from ads on its search results. “It costs roughly 0.25 € to plant a tree, which means that Ecosia can plant one tree every 50 searches,” it says on the website. But it is also powered by Bing, which means the results should be comprehensive.
What are the differences between Google and these other services?
Apart from paying to be the default search engine on some devices, Google search dominates because the results are comprehensive and we have just got used to it. So there would likely be a noticeable difference and some growing pains. Businesses may need to hold out and see which search engines come out on top, and then see what it takes to get their services ranking again.
All of these search engines operate slightly differently, so there will be a learning curve. You may be used to simply typing in “plumber” or a stock market code, which Google can intuit based on contextual clues. In a different search engine you may have to tell it what suburb you’re in. It may also help to try a couple of different search engines to see what gives you the best results.
For advanced users, Google offers a bunch of search operations which can make it easier to search specific sites or refine your results. Most search engines will have similar functionality, but the syntax will be slightly different. There will also be new toys to learn and play with, like Bangs on DuckDuckGo taking you straight to certain websites, or some of the contextual information Bing puts next to search results.
Losing Google search might be a shock. But there are plenty of alternatives to choose from.