Google 的貼牌冰箱(Google refrigerator)
Image by Aray Chen via Flickr

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta
Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.

View All Posts by Kent Anderson


9 Thoughts on "The End of the Salad Days — Where Is Google Headed Next?"

“If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer. You’re the product being sold”, a quote that I first read on this blog.

Isn’t that more true with each passing day?

“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…”

I was able to figure out by myself that I needed to protest this. But what is the problem with a page that’s beautiful and well-designed?

Is anyone surprised by this? Google made this decision when they held their IPO. Once they went public, they put themselves under the demands of Wall Street. Since share value seems to be determined more by constantly creating new revenue streams rather than by having a high quality profitable product sold, they are doing the familiar flailing dance of so many tech companies, throwing every idea in the house up against the wall to see what sticks.

I’m less concerned about the antitrust investigation likely to happen here as Google leverages their search market dominance into the social media market than I am that Google is essentially dismantling their primary revenue source. There’s a reason Google rose to where it is now–they provided high quality, relevant search results in an easy to use, uncluttered interface. Now their results are less about relevancy and more about promoting Google’s other products, and their interface has become less and less usable.

Google is damaging their key product in order to try to create a second revenue stream, and that’s a dangerous strategy. When Microsoft integrated Internet Explorer into Windows, it arguably made Windows a better product. The same can’t be argued here for all the cruft Google is adding to search results.

Thanks Kent. To clarify, Google does not receive any revenues from clicks on ‘organic’, SEO (search engine optimized) results as these results are based on Google’s algorithm and not on any advertising deal. Websites may choose to “pay” an SEO firm to help them optimize their organic ranking to get more traffic – but those payments are to the firm not Google. Where conflicts may emerge is if Google has a competing service and their algorithm mysteriously ranks the Google branded service higher than a third party. This charge has been levied on Google in the past but to my knowledge there’s been no finding of wrongdoing. See:

Occupy, Brotha! Which is to ask, wherefore your faith in markets? Oh, yeah, right….

Profit is not evil. Stupidity is. If we are sufficiently naive to believe that “don’t be evil” (a fatuous and self-satisfied corporate creed if ever there was one) equals “free software forever with no strings attached and complete altruism as a motive” then perhaps we’ve been lulled by that obvious canard. Google is under no obligation to provide us with free software, and of course they don’t. They provide us instead with “free*” software, asterisk indicating “terms and conditions apply.”

The rhetorical genius of “open source” has always been its power to tap into deep human desire for protection. Protection from risk and from want. Something for nothing. But it never really plays out that way, does it? The business “genius” of open source is rather more mundane: the commercial exchange becomes a triangle rather than a line. Instead of A and B exchanging value, A gives B something B values, which creates by its use value for C, who compensates A (see John Spevacek’s comment above). It is conceptually indistinguishable from the broadcast television model. Urchin is a good show that just got cancelled.

I agree with David: when the Goog overshoots in the direction of commercial objectives in a way that genuinely diminishes the quality of its products, the market will respond. Antitrust always thinks “no, this time, it’s different! this time there is nothing to stop ____, Inc. from world domination!” Tell it to the Gates Foundation.

And with respect to your question “How much of the Internet’s new infrastructure do we want to leave in the hands of private companies?” — well, assuming (as you seem to) that you consider this new infrastructure to comprise Facebook, iOS textbooks, Google Maps, etc– that’s the closest I’ve seen you come to advocating outright Chavez-style nationalization.

Chillax, Fidel. Users will leave the Goog behind when the Goog turns into Home Shopping Network. Bank it.

Profit is not evil, but it seems to lead to tone-deafness. If the Goog can’t hear its customers from atop its piles of money, that’s a problem for both Google and us. With technology more approachable in some ways than ever, do we have to sit idly by and await their enlightenment? Or could we do something else?

The “utility” model of Web infrastructure has always intrigued me — a mix of private market and public governance, like the power company or the telcos of old. At what point will we reach the threshold of utility when private companies messing with infrastructure becomes too much of a nuisance, too unreliable, too unstable? It seems at times like a new model of governance over these backbones and services is inevitable, in the same way we went from wells to public drinking water.

Managed infrastructure isn’t “Chavez-style.” Let’s assume instead of information highways, tech companies were building real highways. Are you really going to drive over the AltaVista Bridge spanning the Chesapeake, and then go through the Commodore 64 Tunnel into Manhattan? Who’s been maintaining them since those two vanished? Even with its flaws, I think government is in a better position to run common infrastructure at certain levels than private organizations, mainly because most nations last longer than most companies. After all, if you believe in democracy, then government is “our” company. What parts of our national infrastructure should we collectively, through representative government, run? That’s the question. If technology becomes as important as it’s trending to be, is the market alone going to provide what we need into the future? We’re in nice big cities on the coasts. If you’ve been to the rural center of the country, you know that the Goog doesn’t give a hoot about ensuring infrastructure for those people.

I relent. I like your thinkin’ Kent. ‘Bout time “we do something else” with Google’s property.

Super-excited about President Santorum’s new Department of Internet Operations. And the move to install Senator DeMint as Secretary in a recess appointment was brilliant. When the damn ACLU is spending zillions to create gridlock on the Digital Universe Millenium Belated Safe Harbor Internet Taxation act, what else could he reasonably do?

Lovin’ how we handled the public messaging. Ailes packaged this thing like an iPod in a blisterpack. ACLU can squawk all they want, but when Commissioner Rove throttles their video upload they’ll learn that when OWS squawks in the forest and there’s nobody there to hear it, it’s like you didn’t squawk at all.

On a more serious note, I think we’re golden with SCOTA on the NARAL case. The “public upload access balancing” clause will hold here–Congressman Arpaio’s masterstroke was persuading his committee that it was all about ensuring bandwidth for NPR. Put that in your “pipe” and smoke it, Keenan–that’s what we like to call “Row or Wade”–’cause you ain’t UPLOADING shit, suckers.

Obviously, Comrade Anderson, I misunderestimated the potential of your proposal. Let’s Roll!

I have been giving this one some considered thought and I question the basic premise of the posting which appears to be the idea that Google is moving away from mainline search results. That’s not necessarily the case, given that what ads you see are highly dependent upon the nature of your search query. In checking my web search history through Google, I find that I regularly have days where I run more than 20 queries during a single twenty-four hour period. When I first looked at the graphic supplied here, my first thought was that I don’t see anywhere near as many ads as that illustration would seem to suggest. Users will only see that volume of advertising when running very, very general queries such as the one shown, “flights from ny to sf” that are clearly aimed at purchasing a product or service. Using one of my standard test queries “Jane Austen clergy Church England” or alternatively “conium poisoning hemlock”, I am not inundated with advertising.

I don’t disagree with your general premise that the Internet is changing and we need to closely monitor the nature of those changes, but the illustration used to make your case isn’t as strong as it might be.

You have very interesting searches, but I’d wager that they’re less mainstream than the one in the example. It goes to show that where there’s money, Google will morph. I don’t think there’s that much money in hemlock (only indirectly, if you catch my drift).

Comments are closed.