Nobody can pinpoint the exact origin of the phrase “Can’t see the forest for the trees,” but that hasn’t stopped countless people all over the internet debating its proper citation, grammar and philosophical interpretation.
Where there appears to be common ground, however, is in what the phrase means: Being so focused on the details of one thing can cause people to lose perspective and miss a much more important and relevant bigger picture — often at their peril.
It’s also a great metaphor for what we just witnessed last week when the European Commission found Google guilty of anti-competitive practices over its Google Shopping product and levied a record $2.7 billion fine on them.
This ruling comes seven years after an investigation was opened into these alleged “anticompetitive practices” (November 2010) and two years after Google was formally charged (April 2015).
The saga is well-documented, so I’ll spare you the lengthy narrative. The Cliff Notes version is that a bunch of tiny websites convinced the Commission that Google’s Shopping product put them at a disadvantage when consumers were searching for products. Google Shopping is the little carousel of product images that consumers see at the top of Google’s search results page and for which marketers pay to be there.
These little guy sites, who pushed the Commission to open an investigation in the years leading up to 2010, had some big help — Microsoft.
Suspend disbelief for a minute, if you will, that Microsoft is anything but a little guy, but they do operate a little guy search engine, Bing. In 2010, Bing had just rebranded from Live Search and was being criticized in Europe for not doing much to upgrade the user experience aside from having a new logo on the search results page. It was reported in the news at the time that consumers who might have been persuaded to try Bing after hearing of its rebranding were left disappointed — and might never come back. Analysts said that it lacked basic features that searchers wanted. Back then, Bing held less than a few percentage points’ share of the online search market across Europe.
The little website guys, egged on by big guy Microsoft with its little search engine Bing, managed to convince the European Commission in 2010 that there was reason to believe that Google was manipulating its search algorithms to provide favored placement via Google Shopping. It claimed that Google did that because it made money when it did. Little guys without the budget to pay for such a favored position on Google, they said, never had a shot at getting anyone’s attention — and that was a very bad thing for little guys, since there was no other competition for product search.
Ignoring the fact that there was competition for online search — it just wasn’t very good, and consumers didn’t want to use it.
And since no one used Bing to search for much of anything, little guy websites found Bing generated no traffic for them. Since the little guys didn’t really generate that many clicks on their sites — period — they never had much of a chance to rise in the rankings on Google. And, as a little guy, they said they were unable to afford to buy ads to drive clicks to improve their position — so they were stuck.
Big rich tech giant Google smashing poor little guys (and one big rich guy with a little guy search engine and a grudge). It was music to the European Commission’s ears.
It didn’t take long for everyone else to pile on.
Five years later, there were formal charges filed against Google and four more investigations opened — including a pending case on Android and its bundling of Google apps in exchange for the free use of its mobile operating system.
Culminating in the record $2.7 billion fine, which Google says it will appeal.
Good luck with that, since that Commission hardly ever gets reversed.
The trees in the Google Shopping case that the European Commission saw were online searches conducted by general search engines like Google and Bing. Looking at those trees, they saw that if consumers only used search engines to find new products — and since Google has a dominant share of online searches and since they charge money for advertisers to appear in Google Shopping — they must be doing something harmful to consumers.
But they missed a pretty big forest when they did that: the emergence of other aggregators that have become the starting point for consumer product searches that are increasingly not via Google (or Bing).
In 2015, the year that formal charges were filed, we asked 2,000 consumers where they started their product searches. Search engines came in third.
Who do you think came first? (And your first two guesses don’t count).