The business of search engines

The internet is a world of information, which we rely on search engines to help us find. But does this free service come with a catch?
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With hundreds of billions of documents available online and internet usage on the increase, the ability to sort the reliable and relevant information from the unreliable and irrelevant using search engines has become big business. 

In a report prepared for Google Australia, Deloitte Economics estimated that the time saved just by Australian households searching accurately online is worth about $7 billion per year. But are we really getting results that best match our search queries?

This report takes a look at:

See our Software and online services section for more information about Internet.

Video: search-engines-opting-out

CHOICE journalist, Zoya Sheftalovich, explains how to opt out of search engine personalisation settings, step-by-step.

The players


In Australia, more than 88% of searches are conducted using Google. Taking the lion’s share of the market, Google is approaching a monopoly – and search is not its only business. Its other offerings include:

To provide users with instant answers to search queries along with results, Google draws on its suite of products. So if you search for an address in Google, chances are a Google Map image will be your top result.


Bing is Microsoft's answer to search, and accounts for four per cent of searches conducted in Australia. Like Google, it also offers a suite of products, supported by Microsoft. These include:


Around two per cent of searches are conducted using Yahoo! in Australia. The search engine is powered by Bing, and it's Australian website Yahoo!7 is a partnership between the Seven West Media Group and Yahoo! Inc. It's offerings include:

Search results

Google, Bing and Yahoo! are not impartial search arbiters – they all have systems in place that filter the way we receive our search results. They’re businesses and therefore operate to make a profit, driven in part by paid advertisers and by supporting their own product offerings. In some cases this is a good thing – it means you get what you want, quickly. But at what cost?

Other search engines also appear to elevate their own products into the top of the list, but it’s a concern that Google in particular, with its enormous market share, may be limiting the organic traffic flow to other, potentially superior products, and therefore limiting consumer choice in the long run.

The power of appearing early in search results is significant. A study conducted by The Australia Institute (TAI) in 2011 found that only 15% of people click beyond the first page of results.

Google denies manipulating search results in this way. “We rank search results to deliver the best and most relevant answers to users,” a spokesperson told CHOICE. “If we delivered search results in a way that didn’t serve our users’ interests, they would simply go elsewhere.”

However, Maureen Henninger, a search expert with the University of Technology, Sydney, believes Google has become too big. “It is not just search, it’s all the other things they’re involved in. They’re buying up just about anything that works at the moment. Many people are concerned with any sort of a monopoly because from a consumer’s point of view, they’re not necessarily always getting the best of what they want to buy or search for.”



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