How Smart Speakers Will Cope Without Google Search

How Smart Speakers Will Cope Without Google Search
Contributor: Alex Kidman

With Google stating that it may remove search from Australia if the media bargaining code goes ahead in its current form, there’s something of an open question about what that means for IoT gadgets like smart speakers.

What’s the issue?

Just in case you’re not up to speed, the Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2020 will force Google to directly pay specific Australian news outlets.

Google’s response has been it would be forced to remove search from Australia entirely if the bill goes ahead in its current state.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has reacted by saying the Australian Government “doesn’t’ respond to threats.”

Comparatively, Google Australia’s managing director, Mel Silva, told the Senate Standing Committee on Economics that “It’s not a threat, it’s a reality”.

In recent days, it appears that Google and the Australian government may be coming to some sort of compromise, with Google’s News Showcase going live for a limited set of publishers.

Still, if you do any kind of search you’re probably going to see the Google alert around the news code, and there’s been no absolute public backdown from the threat of removing Google Search altogether.

It’s not a reality yet, but the fact that Google’s dangling the nuclear approach does show that it’s presumably quite serious about going down that path if a compromise position can’t be reached. If it can’t, Australians visiting Google search could soon be met with a message indicating that Google Search is not available in Australia.

But here’s the rub.

While many think of search as just ‘that thing you do in a web browser’, it’s actually far more foundational for Google-reliant hardware.

Won’t somebody think of the smart speakers?

Gizmodo Australia approached Google for clarification around smart speakers and what may or may not work if search is removed. Google Australia declined the opportunity for an interview around this topic.

Given the delicate political positioning, this is not entirely surprising. But it does leave those questions rather open.

Still, we can look at what search features smart speakers use and make some educated assumptions around what may or may not fall over if Google does remove search functionality in Australia.

Why search is so important to Google’s smart speakers.

Just about every service Google offers relies on search, or draws valuable information from it to improve how Google provides said services. Smart speakers and displays — from the smallest Google Nest Mini up to the premium Nest Hub Max — are a good example of this.

They’re very useful devices for smart homes, but a lot of that utility rests on the information that Google has gathered and can deliver via its search platform.

The most obvious example of this comes from asking a Google Assistant powered smart speaker a basic question. That’s search at its purest.

Here’s a scenario some people may be familiar with. Let’s say you’re googling stuff about pregnancy — Google Assistant will use search to fulfil that request.

However, Google is also all about personalisation when it comes to search. This is because it serves two goals for the tech giant. It allows Google to fine-tune search results for you.

If it knows you’re already interested in baby stuff, it might assume that weddings may also be your jam. That same information can (and is) used to serve you ads as well, like pop-ups for engagement rings because you’re apparently the ideal market.

How big is the problem?

Smart speakers are big business in Australia. And unlike the US, where Amazon Alexa-powered speakers dominate, we’re predominantly a Google Assistant speaker country.

According to research published by Telsyte Australia, the installed base of smart speakers in Australia was 2.6 million households as of June 2020.

Fast forward to December 2020, and that number jumped to 2.8 million households. This suggests that we’re getting increasingly comfortable with smart speakers in our homes as a concept.

Of those 2.8 million households, some 64% had a Google-specific speaker, 17% had an Amazon speaker, 3% were Apple HomePod fanatics and the final 16% had ‘other’ speaker brands.

Given that most of the alternative smart speakers tend to offer Google Assistant (although some, like Sonos give you the choice between Google and Alexa), it’s pretty clear that in the Australian space, Google Assistant is king.

What’s likely to keep working?

Google’s statement around removing search is pretty specific when it comes to other services such as YouTube, which is not being yoinked away from Aussie users.

So if you’ve got a smart display, or use YouTube Music for your tunes, there shouldn’t be an interruption in play there. While Google could take ‘search’ terribly literally, and searching for music on YouTube would also be verboten, this seems unlikely.

Equally, most of the smart home IoT device functions of a Google powered smart speaker should continue to operate. They typically rely on you explicitly linking an existing smart device service, like Philips Hue lights, to a Google Account.

What might actually break?

More explicitly Google-centric services that rely on a level of searching are where it gets a lot murkier.

For example, it’s all but certain that Google uses its own search services to interrogate your Google Calendar when asked. It’s not clear whether that kind of information would still be available to you if search isn’t.

There’s also the longer term effects on Google’s ability to accurately surface information on Australia over time. We’ve already seen this with Google’s experimental removal of some news services from search, which in itself led to news results of questionable quality being surfaced. But it could go quite a bit further.

Google isn’t going to stop offering search results about Australia to overseas users – it can still sell ads on those, after all. But if millions of Australians aren’t using Google, that means it’s not gathering info on our search habits, the places we are or the interests we have. Over time this could affect the reliability of its actual information on offer.

That’s also true for the millions of AdWords and SEO optimisation tricks that Australian businesses use right now to boost their Google rankings. If Australians can’t use Google Search it could be a windfall for Microsoft’s Bing, but also a downfall for the quality of information that Google gathers overall.

That could also affect just how useful Google Maps is for you. Right now, if I ask Google Assistant about my work commute it can tell me local details, but it does so based on local information it’s able to gather. That’s a search, and it’s far from clear how and to what extent it might restrict that access if a blanket “search” ban is in effect.

If my Google Speaker stops working, could I get a refund?

This is where it gets complicated, especially as we’re talking about a situation with a lot of caveats and unknowns within it.

Australian Consumer Law generally states that products and services must be fit for purpose as advertised, but there’s no explicit period for which they have to remain so.

I’m a technology journalist and not a lawyer, so I put the question to a legal academic to see where (and if) Australian consumer law might step in to protect Australian consumers if their Google speakers stopped working.

Professor Jeannie Paterson is the co-director of the Centre for AI and Digital Ethics at the University of Melbourne Law School. From her perspective there could be a requirement for Google, or merchants who have sold Google smart speakers, to provide refunds if they lose search functionality.

But according to Paterson, the answer is complicated.

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“Goods have to be of acceptable quality under Australian consumer law. It’s not that the product doesn’t work, because the Google Speaker still works… but it’s the service that’s disappeared,” Paterson said.

“There’s nothing in the consumer law that says you can’t cut off a service but where I would go back to is what you are promised when you get a Google smart speaker.”

As Paterson states, part of what you’re promised is Google search functionality.

“It’s part of what you sign up for,” Paterson said.

“If you look at the advertising, they talk about how you can go ‘Hey Google, tell me the news’ or ‘Hey Google, tell me the weather’ or ‘Hey Google, tell me what the best restaurant is’. So one of the things that’s promoted through signing up to that device is that you will get to do Google searches.”

That scenario does depend on Google actually cutting off search and it stopping that functionality working on Google Smart Speakers, at which point Professor Paterson thinks that it becomes “problematic under consumer and also contract law.”

“It’s not a durability question” she said. “Integral to what you bought [the speaker] for was that it would have this search function. That no longer exists. The product you’ve got is not the product you were sold. It’s not of acceptable quality under the law, and that’s either misleading or it’s a breach of contract.”

At this point you should be entitled to a refund, or damages to cover the loss of the device that doesn’t do what you signed up for. After all, it’s not as though a replacement unit would be any different.

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Professor Paterson notes that consumers’ primary claim would be against Google itself. But in some circumstances it may be against the supplier the device was purchased from as well.

“Really your claim is against Google, not the supplier you bought it from. But the supplier may also have obligations if they’ve taken on the advertising and the claims, or if we treat the search service as inseparably entwined with the device itself.”

This does get trickier again for Google’s cheaper speaker products, because they’ve been near endlessly used as promotional items by everyone from the likes of Telstra and even Google itself.

Infamously, Gizmodo’s own Tegan Jones ended up with a surprise Google Home Mini from Woolworths and investigated why.

While it might seem as though getting a ‘free’ speaker wouldn’t entitle you to any kind of compensation, that may not be the case.

“It depends” Professor Paterson said, noting that she’s got a Nest speaker sitting somewhere that she definitely didn’t pay directly for.

“If getting that Google product was an incentive for you to get a Google phone or shop with Woolworths or whatever, you might argue, well actually there was an opportunity cost here because I would have bought something elsewhere.”

Paterson also said that it could be argued that “without Google search the product simply isn’t of any value”

“So with gifts your rights can be more restricted than if you if you’ve actually bought it, but there are still protections under the law.”

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