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Is buying ads the only way to show up in Google search results?

“Google’s brought on as this thing that wanted to serve information to the world,” says the co-founder of the British price comparison website GoCompare. “But actually what it’s doing is to show you information that people have paid it to show you.”

That’s partly because so much of a Google results page reflects paid advertising results as opposed to “natural” search results. But can an ordinary company get its page ranked on the first page of the natural search results naturally, or is paying for an ad the only realistic way to show up on page one?

A lot of companies have been asking.  That has prompted the United Kingdom’s competition watchdog to undertake a study of how much power Google and its competitors have over search engine results. More immediately, the European Union fined Google 1.5 billion euros for intentionally thwarting other advertising companies.

Driving these natural search results is called “search engine optimization” or SEO, and it’s big business. Yet GoCompare found that it couldn’t keep its ads at the top of the search results even with a team of engineers, mathematicians and SEO professionals.

It can’t even guarantee it will rank well in searches of its own name. This is because Google allows anyone to bid on “branded keywords” such as company names. So GoCompare has to out-bid its competitors to rank in searches for “GoCompare.”

This has gotten much more expensive over time. GoCompare’s parent company says that the cost of bidding for branded search terms has doubled since 2016, particularly in the past 18 months.

Google defends its model, saying that it does allow companies to file trademark claims on some branded searches. This keeps competitors from using the trademarked name in the text of their ads. That can make it less likely the competitor’s ad will show up under the branded search because Google considers the relevancy of the ad in addition to the winning bid when serving up search results.

For now, companies will have to rely on SEO professionals and paid advertising to ensure they show up at the top of search results. That can be expensive, and not all companies will be able to afford it. In other words, Google search results may actually reflect the companies that spent the most money, one way or another.