Google CEO Sundar Pichai published an op-ed on the Fox News website last week titled "American Small Business and Big Business Must Grow Together." In it, he earnestly argues that big and little businesses need each other, and how Google is here to help small businesses grow. But what he's actually saying is that small businesses should use as many Google products as possible. 

Even if those products and services cost nothing to the consumer, they're still lucrative for Google because they come with advertising. They also give the company a way to gather even more valuable data about those who use the products. So when Pichai writes, "For us, the last two decades have shown that big businesses and small businesses can grow together, especially in the digital economy," what he really means is "We'd like to grow our big company by selling more products to your small ones."

Don't get me wrong. I love Google products--as a one-person business, I use a lot of them myself. And I have great respect for Pichai, who has mostly shown himself to be an able leader for Google. But he loses that respect when he thinly disguises a sales pitch with claptrap like this: "Every day millions of small businesses are creating and building amazing things--and experiencing the same growing pains as we did. I believe larger companies like Google should play a role in helping them."

Caring deeply about selling stuff to small businesses is very different from caring deeply about small businesses. Pichai seems to think small-business owners can't tell the difference, which is just insulting.

Small businesses consistently rank lower in Google searches

To learn how Google really feels about small businesses, consider how that tech behemoth treats them when it's not trying to sell them something. For instance, when ranking small businesses in its market-dominating search engine. Try this simple experiment: Google any word or phrase you can come up with. Unless your search term is actually the name of a small company, or perhaps its CEO, chances are that the top result will be the website of a large organization, not a small one. The second and third top results probably will be as well.

Last year, Matt Bentley, founder of SEO consulting firm CanIRank conducted an analysis of search rankings for 30,000 websites to see how Google ranks small and large companies in search results. The results were disheartening for small businesses. Bentley found Google search rankings have a built-in bias toward large businesses over small ones. In fact, he found that four huge organizations--Amazon, Google, Wikipedia, and WebMD--were vastly overrepresented in top search results. He says this is because big names are more recognizable and that the human bias toward the recognizable has been programmed into Google's A.I. that ranks search results. Although Bentley doesn't mention this, big-brand websites are likely to have more inbound links than small ones, and inbound links very much boost search rankings.

How bad is this built-in bias toward big companies? Bentley claims that Wikipedia, Amazon, Google, or WebMD very frequently appear in the top three results of a Google search, while small businesses' websites don't come up until the second or third page of search results. And, Bentley says, in his experience, this tendency to favor big businesses' websites over those of small businesses is getting more pronounced over time.

Better content doesn't help

One common piece of advice to small companies that want better ranking on Google is to add high-quality content to their websites, but Bentley's research shows this really doesn't help. In fact, he found one of his clients outranked by Amazon on the search term "massage table" even though, at the time, Amazon had only one model and 200 words of garbled content about it clearly written by a non-native English speaker. Meantime, his client, who had many models and a lot of useful content about massage tables, did not appear until the second page of search results. "Put the same piece of content on a big-brand site and a small-business site and the big brand will outrank every time. Worse, put a much better piece of content on the small-biz website, and in most cases the big brand will still win," he says.

Pichai touts local search results--the results that come up when someone searches Google for a restaurant or other business "near me"--as a way Google is helping small businesses. If you've used this feature, you already know that a lot of small businesses don't appear in these results at all. Having gotten directions to a dry cleaner "near me," you'll often find yourself passing two other dry cleaners on your way there. Obviously, for most retailers and food service companies, ranking well in Google's "near me" results is highly valuable. To make sure to get the best listing, Google offers some useful advice, such as making sure your hours are accurate on Google and verifying your address with Google. But here, as with regular search, inbound links are a very powerful ranking booster, which means--as with regular search--large organizations will always have a built-in advantage.

When I reached out to Bentley to ask about his analysis, his response was enlightening: "Wow, I did not realize that Sundar Pichai claimed to be on the side of small businesses. From my perspective as a marketer who works with a lot of small businesses and startups, that feels more than a little hypocritical."

I don't know about you, but it feels that way to me, too.

Google has not responded so far to a request for comment.

Published on: Oct 8, 2019
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