Google Partners with South Africa to Fix Unfair Search Results

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Google is flipping the script on its anti-competitive behavior in South Africa, with a partnership to bolster digital transformation in the country’s tourism sector.

— Selene Brophy

Google teamed up with South Africa’s tourism department Monday to boost travel marketing efforts after a government inquiry concluded in July that Google’s practices impede competition.

The inquiry was done by South Africa’s competition commission. It found that for 90% of general searches, Google tended to favor its services and larger platforms that can afford to boost their search results.

Smaller South African travel businesses and tour operators were at a disadvantage, the inquiry found.

South Africa’s Minister of Tourism, Patricia de Lille, said the priority now was to set up a tourism sector database with all active tourism-related businesses. The department would also identify training needs for Google’s various digital tools by the end of the current financial year.

Tools development will include a custom data dashboard to better understand searches for South African travel products.

Google South Africa’s Country Director, Dr Alistair Mokoena, explained how Google’s tools could help. “With Google Business Profile, which is a free service, we help businesses sign up and create a website within a couple of hours, and you’re able to advertise your website to drive traffic to it, and people will come and leave reviews, and we’ve got a tool that turns those positive reviews into advertising material for small businesses,” said Mokoena.  

The search giant has also faced anti-trust inquiries in Europe.

Slow Digital Transformation

De Lille said that South African Tourism spent 50%, or an estimated $53 million, of the department’s annual budget on marketing efforts to draw travelers to South Africa. De Lille said the private sector was spending an estimated $1.6 billion on digital advertising annually. She believed training smaller businesses in technology to compete in a digital market was vital. 

South Africa is seeing a marked increase in visitor numbers, with 6.1 million visitors as of the end of September, with its peak summer season still ahead. That’s up from 5.8 million in 2022.  

“South Africa is lagging behind the rest of the world and behind our competitors. I just attended the World Travel Market in London… where they are talking about artificial intelligence already. I think sometimes we are complacent and think we’ve got this beautiful country, but we still have to go out and market our country to the world,” said De Lille. 

Added measures Google needs to implement: 

  • Visibility of local products: Google will create a dedicated carousel to enhance the visibility of smaller South African platforms, including a South African flag badge to boost visibility for smaller local businesses in search results.
  • Advertising Credits: Google will provide R180 million ad credits ($9.6 million) and free training to small platforms for better customer acquisition. 
  • Support for small and medium enterprises and black-owned firms: Google is to allocate R150 million ($8 million) for training and support to enhance the online competitiveness of SMEs and black-owned businesses.
  • Preventing self-preferencing: Google must implement similar measures taken in Europe in South Africa to comply with similar provisions in the Digital Markets Act to ensure its services don’t unfairly dominate search results. The act details that companies deemed as gatekeepers should use unbiased parameters to determine ranking, indexing, and crawling for search results that demonstrate equal treatment.

Photo Credit: Dr Alistair Mokoena, Country Director for Google South Africa and South African Minister of Tourism Patricia de Lille and signed the Agreement in Cape Town.

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