You can’t shop your way out of a monopoly

Any election where you vote with your wallet will be won by the people with the thickest wallets.

Cory Doctorow
7 min readMar 5, 2024

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A rough, red-painted door with an old-fashioned keyhole. Visible through the keyhole is a blasted wasteland with a poop emoji surmounted by a red Google Maps location pin. Image: alicia rae (modified) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kehole_Red.jpg CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en — Budhiargomiko (modified) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wasteland.jpg CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en

I’m on tour with my new, nationally bestselling novel The Bezzle! Catch me in TUCSON (Mar 9–10), then SAN FRANCISCO (Mar 13), and more!

A yellow rectangle. On the left, in blue, are the words ‘Cory Doctorow.’ On the right, in black, is ‘The Bezzle.’ Between them is the motif from the cover of *The Bezzle*: an escheresque impossible triangle. The center of the triangle is a barred, smaller triangle that imprisons a silhouetted male figure in a suit. Two other male silhouettes in suits run alongside the top edges of the triangle.

If you’re running a business, you can either invest at being good at your business, or good at Google SEO. Choose the former and your customers will love you — but they won’t be able to find you, thanks to the people who choose the latter. And if you’re going to invest in top-notch SEO, why bother investing in quality at all?

For more than a decade, Google has promised that it would do something about “lead gens” — services that spoof Google into thinking that they are local businesses, pushing down legit firms on both regular search and Google Maps (these downranked businesses invested in quality, not SEO, remember). Search for a roofer, a plumber, an electrician, or a locksmith (especially a locksmith), and most or all of the results will be lead-gens. They’ll take your call, pretend to be a local business, and then call up some half-qualified bozo to come out and charge you four times the going rate for substandard work:

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/31/business/fake-online-locksmiths-may-be-out-to-pick-your-pocket-too.html

Some of them just take your money and they “go back to the shop for a tool” and never return:

https://www.riverfronttimes.com/news/when-a-fake-business-used-a-real-st-louis-address-things-got-weird-32087998

Google has been promising to fix this since the late aughts, and to be fair, it’s a little better. There was once a time when a map of Manhattan showed more locksmiths than taxis:

https://blumenthals.com/blog/2009/02/18/google-maps-proves-more-locksmiths-in-nyc-than-cabs/

But GMaps is trapped in the enshittification squeeze. On the one hand, the company wants to provide a good and reliable map. On the other hand, the company makes money selling “ads” that are actually payola, where a business can pay to get to the top of the listings or get displayed on the map itself. Zoom out of Google’s map of central London and the highlighted landmarks are a hilarious mix of “organic” and paid listings: the British Museum, Buckingham Palace, the Barbican, the London Eye…and a random oral and maxillofacial clinic in the financial district:

https://twitter.com/dylanbeattie/status/1764711667663831455

Hell of a job “organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful,” Big G. Doubtless the average Londoner finds the presence of this clinic super helpful in orienting themselves relative to the map on their phone screens, and it’s a real service to tourists hoping to hit all the major landmarks.

It’s not just Maps users who’d noticed the rampant enshittification. Even the original design team is so horrified they’re moved to speak out about the moral injury they experience seeing the product they worked so hard on turned into a giant pile of shit:

https://twitter.com/elizlaraki/status/1727351922254852182

Now, when it comes to locksmiths, I’m lucky. My neighborhood in Burbank includes the wonderful Golden State Lock and Safe, which has been in business since 1942:

https://www.goldenstatelock.com/

But you wouldn’t know it from searching GMaps for a locksmith near me. That search turns up a long list of scams:

https://www.google.com/maps/search/locksmith/@34.1750451,-118.369948,14z/data=!3m1!4b1?entry=ttu

It also turns up plenty of Keyme machines — these are private-equity backed, self-serve key-cutting machines placed in grocery stores. Despite Keyme calling itself a “locksmith,” it’s just a badly secured, overcaptilized, enshittification-bound system for collecting and retaining shapefiles for the keys to millions of homes, cross-referenced with billing information that will make it easy for the eventual hackers to mass-produce keys for all those poor suckers’ houses.

(Hilariously, Keyme claims to be an “AI” company):

https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20200114005194/en/KeyMe-Raises-35-Million-to-Further-Its-Mission-of-Building-the-Premier-Locksmith-Services-Company-in-the-Nation

But despite the fact that you can literally see the Golden State storefront from Google Streetview, Google Maps claims to have no knowledge of it. Instead, Streetview labels Golden State “Keyme” — and displays a preview showing a locksmith using a tool to break into a jeep (I’d dearly love to know how the gadget next to the Slurpee machine at the 7-Eleven will drive itself to your jeep and unlock the door for you when you lose your keys):

https://www.google.com/maps/place/KeyMe+Locksmiths/@34.1752624,-118.3487531,3a,75y,350.19h,90.21t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1ssHrtqjqvgFir3NBauMy13Q!2e0!7i16384!8i8192!4m15!1m8!3m7!1s0x80c2959cd65dbb1b:0x4b3744cf87492a71!2sBurbank+Blvd+%26+N+Hollywood+Way,+Burbank,+CA+91505!3b1!8m2!3d34.1750025!4d-118.3493484!16s%2Fg%2F11f37_3lq8!3m5!1s0x80c2951cedbf4d39:0xe8ff9fd5872e66e9!8m2!3d34.1755176!4d-118.349!16s%2Fg%2F11mw7nr4fx?entry=ttu

It’s pretty clear to me what’s going on here. Keyme has hired some SEO creeps and/or paid off Google, flooding the zone with listings for its machines. Meanwhile, Golden State, being merely good at locksmithing, has lost the SEO wars. Perhaps Golden State could shift some of its emphasis from being good at locksmithing in order to get better at SEO, but this is a race that will always be won by the firm that puts the most into SEO, which will always be the firm that puts the least into quality.

Whenever I write about this stuff, people inevitably ask me which search engine they should use, if not Google?

And there’s the rub.

Google used predatory pricing and anticompetitive mergers to acquire a 90% search market-share. The company spends more than $26b/year buying default position in every place where you might possibly encounter a new search engine. This created the “kill zone” — the VC’s term of art for businesses that no one will invest in, because Google makes sure that no one will ever find out it exists:

https://www.theverge.com/23802382/search-engine-google-neeva-android

That’s why the only serious competitor to Google is Bing, another Big Tech company (Bing is also the primary source of results on Duckduckgo, which is why DDG sometimes makes exceptions for Microsoft’s privacy-invading tracking):

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DuckDuckGo#Controversies

Google tells us that the quid-pro-quo of search monopolization is search excellence. The hundreds of billions it makes every year through monopoly control gives it the resources it needs to fight spammers and maintain search result quality. Anyone who’s paid attention recently knows that this is bullshit: Google search quality is in free-fall, across all its products:

https://downloads.webis.de/publications/papers/bevendorff_2024a.pdf

But Google doesn’t seem to think it has a problem. Rather than devoting all its available resources to fighting botshit, spam and scams, the company set $80 billion dollars alight last year with a stock buyback that was swiftly followed with 12,000 layoffs, followed by multiple subsequent rounds of layoffs:

https://pluralistic.net/2024/02/21/im-feeling-unlucky/#not-up-to-the-task

The scams that slip through Google’s cracks are sometimes nefarious, but just as often they’re decidedly amateurish, the kind of thing that Google could fix by throwing money at the problem, say, to validate that new ads for confirmed Google merchants come from the merchant’s registered email addresses and go to the merchant’s registered website:

https://pluralistic.net/2023/02/24/passive-income/#swiss-cheese-security

Search is a capital intensive business, and there are real returns to scale, as the UK Competition and Market Authority’s excellent 2020 study describes:

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5fe4957c8fa8f56aeff87c12/Appendix_I_-_search_quality_v.3_WEB_.pdf

But Google doesn’t seem to think that its search needs that $80 billion to fight the spamwars. That’s the thing about monopolists, they get complacent. As Lily Tomlin’s “Ernestine the AT&T operator” used to say, “We don’t care, we don’t have to, we’re the phone company.”

That’s why I’m so excited about the DOJ Antitrust Division monopolization case against Google. Trusting one company to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” was a failure:

https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-sues-google-monopolizing-digital-advertising-technologies

I understand why people want to know which search engine they should use instead of Google, and I get why, “There aren’t any good search engines” is such an unsatisfactory answer. I understand why each fresh round of printer-company fuckery prompts people to ask “which printer should I get?” and I understand why “There are only six major printer companies and they’re all suffering from end-stage enshittification” isn’t what anyone wants to hear.

We want to be able to vote with our wallets, because it’s so much faster and more convenient than voting with our ballots. But the vote-with-your-wallet election is rigged for the people with the thickest wallets. Try as hard as you’d like, you just can’t shop your way out of a monopoly — that’s like trying to recycle your way out of the climate emergency. Systemic problems need systemic solutions — not individual ones.

That’s why the new antitrust matters so much. The answer to monopolies is to break up companies, block and unwind mergers, ban deceptive and unfair conduct. “Caveat emptor” is the scammer’s motto. You shouldn’t have to be an expert on lead gen scams to hire a locksmith without getting ripped off.

There are good products and services out there. Earlier this year, we decided to install a (non-networked) programmable pushbutton lock. I asked Deviant Ollam — whom I know from Defcon’s Lockpicking Village — for a recommendation and he suggested the Schlage FE595:

https://www.schlage.com/en/home/products/FE595PLYFFFFLA.html

I liked it so much I bought another one for my office door. Eric from Golden State Lock and Safe installed it while I wrote this blog-post. It’s great. I recommend both of ’em — 10/10, would do business again.

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If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog:

https://pluralistic.net/2024/03/05/the-map-is-not-the-territory/#vapor-locksmith

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