There’s still a whiff of idealism around all things Internet, a hint of revolution, of positive change, of a unified spirit devoted to creating an exciting world of possiblities. The recent SOPA/PIPA dust-up brought this to the fore again, at least from a few major players, including Google. But there was a difference this time, both in slickness and effect — for instance, the Wikipedia blockade page was beautiful, well-designed, and smartly engineered to direct people to protest to their Congressional representatives; it was not the panicked and angry HTML of a spontaneous protest.
Google has long kept the feeling of idealism alive by presenting searches that felt both right and fair, and by cultivating a thousand different experiments in a laboratory environment that seemed to celebrate the possibilities of the Internet. Now, however, Google’s search results are increasingly commercial in appearance and effect, and the company is closing down experiments left and right.
Is the façade of idealism slipping away?
Take, for instance, Google’s search results. Sponsored results and ads have long been with us, but this graphic from a smart CNET article shows clearly how much real estate is being turned over to advertising or sponsored links:
Google is moving away from mainline search results and into more lucrative paid commercial results. No longer do paid placements run just down the sides of pure results lists — now, the results lists themselves are “answers” that either contain placements or include links to commercial entities. For example, search “perfume,” and in addition to ads at the top and along the sides, you get links to brands and stores before you get into the results, which themselves are the result of a lot of SEO and SEM activity. Commercial search is eating away at the PageRank algorithm.
At the same time, Google’s been closing down a lot of its ecosystem, including the University Research Program for search (which allowed high-volume programmatic access by academics), Urchin (the robust, licensed version of Google Analytics), and parts of iGoogle. Since the founders asserted themselves more strongly, change is afoot, with Google+ driving a lot of strategic directions. In fact, while Google has long avoided evil, they are clearly dissembling when describing Google+ adoption, as Rocky Agrawal writes:
In July, [Larry] Page claimed that the service had 10 million users who shared 1 billion items a day. That sounds incredibly impressive. But let’s do the math. That would mean that the average user was sharing 100 items a day. . . . So how did we get to that number? Well, it turns out Google was counting every potential recipient of that message. A single message from Scoble today would count 240,000 times toward that number. That’s preposterous.
With this new fixation on social, what’s the next shoe to drop at Google? What doesn’t fit with Google’s next round of commercial and strategic moves? Google Scholar? Maps? Earth? Who knows? With the stakes rising for the Internet all the time, the battles are going to be more pitched. Apple has already thrown down the gauntlet at Adobe’s feet over Flash, which is seeing its adoption slipping and which is shut out completely from the iOS market. Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple are clearly the protagonists in the next decade’s Internet drama.
Apple’s another company undergoing a lot of strategic shifts, with its new approach to textbooks, its shift to tablets, and new leadership all hinting at an Apple far different from the company we’ve known. Facebook and Amazon are also morphing.
It raises the question — How much of the Internet’s new infrastructure do we want to leave in the hands of private companies?
As Dave Winer writes:
Google started out on the right path, but eventually they went wild and desperate, and did all the things with their product that users probably thought they would never do. So now I’m shopping for a search engine to invest in. DuckDuckGo could be that, except for this one problem. Imho, it’s inexorably on the same path that Google was on. That means they’re going to spend years of our time pretending that they are still on our side, until one day it’ll be blatantly obvious that we just wasted years waiting for them to give take us somewhere we’d want to go . They are using us as pawns, as big techco’s always do. In other words, I want to use a search engine that I, along with you, and everyone else on the web, own.
The days of us all being pointed in the same direction, the days of heady idealism, may be behind us. The revolution may be giving way to the realities of the commercial Internet. SOPA and PIPA were obvious attempts to control the infrastructure of the Internet for the sake of incumbent media companies. The battles that are coming — platform, infrastructure, and de facto standards — will be just as important, but harder to identify, impossible to defend against, and ultimately definitive.