More than nine in 10 web searches in Australia are typed into a Google search bar. Whether on a smartphone, laptop, tablet or television, dictated to a smart speaker or requested from a car’s connected dashboard, Google’s search engine is omnipresent in modern gadgets.
For many people, “google” has become more a verb than a brand.
But the trillion-dollar tech giant is threatening to withdraw its search service from Australia, to protest against laws that would see it pay Australian news outlets for the stories it uses.
And everyday internet users have started to ask just what that “worst-case scenario” would mean for them.
Will they still be able to access their Google Docs? Will Gmail work? And where will they go to scour the worldwide web for news, facts, trivia answers, products, services and up-to-the-minute Bernie Sanders memes?
According to Statista, 93 per cent of Australians turned to Google for their web searches in November last year, making it a dominating force for finding things online. The company’s closest competitors, Bing and Yahoo, were used by just 18 and 17 per cent of Australians, followed by DuckDuckGo and Search.com. And it’s this monopoly on the web that could create a tricky situation for Australian internet users.
In a Senate Committee hearing into the proposed media bargaining code, Google Australia managing director Mel Silva said the company objected so strongly to its provisions that it would stop Australians from using Google search if it went ahead.
“If the code becomes law, Google would have no real choice but to stop providing Search in Australia,” she said. “That’s a worst-case scenario and the last thing we want to have happen.”
There has been no suggestion Google’s withdrawal from Australia would include other services it offers, such as Gmail, Google Photos or Google Drive.
But Swinburne University social media senior lecturer Dr Belinda Barnet warns that just withdrawing Google Search would cause immediate disruption, and potentially frustration, for millions of web users.
“There will be a massive initial impact on Australians using the internet because Google is the gateway to the internet for Australians right now,” she says. “It will have an impact on grandma sitting down to google a recipe for ginger tea, as well as having an effect on Australians in the middle of a pandemic. And Google is willing to put that on the line.”
Localsearch digital and growth director Adam Boote says small businesses would also have to react quickly to ensure they could still be found. “If Google turns off their search engine, businesses will be required to start from scratch with their marketing,” he says. “This is a big loss in a climate we currently face during a global pandemic.”
Google itself will also have to give up billions of dollars in revenue from Australia, after it collected $4.3 billion in 2019. But the ultimate result of Google withdrawing search in Australia may not be doom and gloom for everyone.
Barnet says it could be a good time for “Australians to learn how to use an alternative to Google, like Bing or DuckDuckGo” , as they offer services that the search leader did not.
DuckDuckGo, for example, does not use web trackers and promises to protect users’ privacy, while other search engines such as Ecosia and Ekoru fund environmental causes with the revenue they raise from ads.
Some search engines also offer users the chance to customise the results they receive, how many results are shown per page, and how they appear. Some show fewer or more obvious sponsored links, offer greater control over fonts, and can be installed as an extension in a Safari, Chrome, Firefox or Edge browser, so your choice becomes automatic.
“After that initial moment of panic, there may be an upside,” Barnet says. “And in the long term there could be a couple of good things that come from it.“
FIVE ALTERNATIVES TO GOOGLING IT
Its name began trending on Twitter after Google appeared in the Senate but DuckDuckGo has been growing in popularity for years. The privacy-focused search engine delivers an average of 93 million results every day and collects them from 400 sources, including other search engines.
The service also promises to block web trackers and deliver private searches, and allows handy customisations, like opening links inside new tabs.
It’s the biggest competitor to Google in search and it’s grown up a lot in the past few years. Microsoft’s Bing offers comprehensive web results and gives users more ways to narrow their focus to find what they need, with dropdown menus for searching by dates, times, regions and languages. There are also easy ways to search by images or voice, and it comes with its own maps.
It used to be the cornerstone for many internet searches – a search engine that also offered users content broken down by categories. Sadly, while Yahoo! is still offering search services at its website, the results come from Bing rather than its own engine.
This search engine promises to plant a tree for every 45 search queries you make, and boasts a tally of 118 million in the ground so far. It’s powered by Bing, is available in an extension to Apple’s Safari browser, and promises not to sell your data to advertisers or use third-party trackers.
Founded in Australia, it uses results from Bing and pledges to donate revenue to environmentally friendly causes. Available from desktop computers, users can also change the look of the search page, and it recently teamed with location firm What3Words to deliver map results.