Why default settings are important to a search engine’s success
Oct 30, 2023

Why default settings are important to a search engine’s success

Marketplace's Matt Levin explains why users' fear of changing default settings on tech devices, especially smartphones, is at the heart of the government's antitrust case against Google.

It was declared the winner of the search-engine wars way back in 1998. Fortune magazine said the company was poised for much bigger things.

That company was, actually, Yahoo. As it turned out, that prediction didn’t age well.

Of course, Google is the real winner of the battle for search engine dominance. How it got there is the subject of the U.S. Justice Department’s antitrust case against it. Google has just started mounting its defense as the 10-week trial nears its end.

Much of the case hinges on the question of default settings on tech devices. Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with her colleague Matt Levin about the role of those settings in the government’s argument.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Matt Levin: So DOJ is saying that Google is paying billions of dollars annually. The New York Times actually just reported $18 billion annually to Apple specifically. Yeah, it’s a lot of money, even for Google. They’re paying all of that to be the default search engine on iPhones and on other devices. And being the default search engine has allowed Google to basically eat an estimated 90% of the search market. And DOJ is saying that’s an anti-competitive practice.

Lily Jamali: Ninety percent, that’s huge. Google’s now getting its turn to mount its case. What’s Google’s response been to all of this?

Levin: So, publicly at least, Google has basically said we’re better. We’re just better. We’re better than Yahoo, we’re better than DuckDuckGo. We’re certainly better than Bing. And that’s why we’ve achieved such dominance in the search engine space. The other part that Google has talked about is it’s not that difficult to change your default settings, especially compared to maybe where we were in the internet like 20 years ago. So if you remember the Microsoft Internet Explorer antitrust trial, arguably the most important antitrust trial of the late 20th century —

Jamali: By a hair.

Levin: By a hair. That trial hinged on Internet Explorer being the default web browser for Windows, right? And back then if you wanted to change web browsers, it was kind of cumbersome. Like truly, like you sometimes had to install a CD-ROM. Remember those? So Google is saying, look, it’s not that hard to do it if a consumer really wanted to do it.

Jamali: Well, let’s maybe deconstruct Google’s argument here a little bit because you spoke to some experts on this. And I guess most people aren’t changing their default settings.

Levin: Yeah, that’s right. And the reasons for that are interesting, right? So there’s a whole literature of behavioral economics about the power of default. If your company auto-enrolls you in a 401(k), you are far more likely to save for retirement as opposed to if you have to sign up for it affirmatively, right? But talking with some experts in user interface design for technology companies, there’s more at play with tech defaults. A lot of it is fear, right? We’ve all been in a situation where we have adjusted the settings on something technological and then our computer froze, or our phone wasn’t working in the way that we wanted it to. So there is more of a apprehension with tech defaults than other forms of defaults.

Jamali: What are some of the things the experts you spoke to said to you about this in terms of the power of defaults?

Levin: So I spoke with Jared Spool, who has been an expert in user interface design for decades now. He’s actually the guy, or at least was on the team, that in the early 1980s came up with the Insert, Home, Page Up, Delete and Page Down — that little suite of keys on the keyboard above the arrows, if you have, like, a big keyboard.

Jamali: Yeah, the Big Six. I just made that up. That’s not a term of art.

Levin: Do you use any of those? I use Page Up every now and then.

Jamali: All the time! Big fan of Insert. Big fan of End.

Levin: That’s music to Jared’s ears, I think. He was saying that part of this is if the tech companies know that these defaults are lucrative and they kind of don’t want you to change them, they’re not going to make it supereasy for you to figure out how to do so. He came up with this really interesting analogy — changing the defaults on tech is kind of like when you go into a friend’s house, and they invite you to pour yourself a cup of water.

Jared Spool: And you open up the cabinet that seems logical to you, but there aren’t any glasses in that. So you have to open up the next one. [Then] you have to open up the next one.

Levin: That feels familiar to me, right? Going through the settings on your phone and being like, OK, OK, OK, OK. And then finally being like, yeah, whatever. I give up, I don’t have time for this. It’s really interesting, too, it seems like the default status is more powerful in mobile as opposed to on your personal computer.

Jamali: I’ve got to ask, Matt, have you tried to fiddle with your default settings? Have you tried switching away from the Google search engine? Because I found it to be kind of hard, and I had the exact experience you just laid out — too hard, not worth it.

Levin: I have. I think that maybe because I’m the only member of my generation that seems to care about privacy. I do have DuckDuckGo as the default search on my phone and my computer, and it’s not as good. It’s not as good as Google.

Jamali: It’s not as good. That’s what Google is saying. It’s because all of us use it so much that it is this good. That’s why, not because they’re paying people, Apple and Mozilla and whoever else.

Levin: That’s right. And the counterargument from the Microsofts and the DuckDuckGos of the world is you are this good because you’re the default. You have so much data to help refine your search engine because you’re the default, that’s why you’re paying Apple $18 billion. That’s what makes your search engine better. If we were the default, we would be just as good as you.

More on this

Well, it took 29 days, but at trial late last week, we learned that in 2021, Google paid $26.3 billion to make sure its search engine was the default on web browsers and mobile phones. As Matt mentioned, the bulk of that went to Apple.

Tim Wu, a Big Tech critic who spent two years strategizing on antitrust issues for the Joe Biden administration called it bombshell news. He asked, rhetorically, on X why Google would need to pay that much if its search engine is so great.

The Verge is out with some back-of-the-napkin math, finding that $26 billion is about 16% of Google’s search revenue and about 29% of its profit. We knew it was a lot, but the actual dollar figure came from the Justice Department’s cross-examination of Google’s head of search, Prabhakar Raghavan.

Raghavan also testified late last week that the company is disparagingly called Grandpa Google, with executives worrying that their product could become irrelevant to young users.

“Grandpa Google knows the answers and will help you with homework,” Raghavan said. “But when it comes to doing interesting things, they like to start elsewhere.”

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Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
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