Once we lived in simpler times. Google was a search engine that made its money off ads that were based on what we searched for. Look for cocoa and you’d get an ad for hot chocolate alongside the search results. Google made lots of money from this and we got our hot chocolate.
This worked because the web was searchable. At the end of the 1990s there was no walled garden beyond the shrinking cabbage patches of early Internet service providers AOL and CompuServe: All the the web was there anxious to be indexed, to be searchable. Idealists wandered into the sunshine and spoke of a future when everything would be found and information would be free.
It was not to be. We’ve already seen some of the problems. When information is free—as in not in chains—people also expect it to be free—as in free beer. When we started relying on search engines to find what we needed online the process would only work if that information was free to Google and its ilk to index, which meant, for the most part, it had to be free to us to access. Result: Google made lots of money, and lots of news organisations had to die before new business models could be found.
But something else happened along the way. Google made its money from knowing us through what we searched for. We had a relationship with Google whether we realised it or not. Just by entering a search term we told them stuff about us, and that helped them help others to sell us stuff. We weren’t the customer; we were, in the now familiar argot, the product.
Then Facebook and twitter and other social networks came along and realised that the same could be true on a much bigger scale if we could be induced to enter a lot more information about ourselves. Soon our lives were online, including photos, videos, likes and dislikes, relationships, affiliations, locations, what we ate, wore, drank, listened to, bought, read.
All that data is even more valuable than the data Google collected on us. But the problem is that it’s not part of the web. Facebook is not really searchable outside Facebook—and it’s not very searchable within Facebook, if you’ve tried to find a link you remember sharing with someone back in October. So now Google is shut out of a big chunk of the web we thought would be forever open.
So Google invented its own social network. Well, two, but one failed: Remember Buzz, anyone? Google now has Google+ and in the past year it’s been pushing it so hard it’s beginning to look like Google has forgotten what made it good in the first place. Its most recent stunt: Incorporate a search on Google with a search of the Google+ network, which it calls, somewhat awkwardly, Search, Plus Your World.
The idea is simple: When you search for cocoa, you not only want a search of what the web has to say on the subject, but you are probably interested in what your friends on Google+ have to say on the matter, along with any photos and tidbits you may have shared yourself.
Many folk don’t like this. They not only feel Google has forgotten that simplicity and speed was what made the search engine the world’s default. They also question why Google assumes that its users are only interested in Google+, which is still a minor player in the social network stakes. Why no twitter, Facebook or other networks?
Google says these two giants aren’t playing ball, something both companies deny; it’s far from clear who’s telling the truth. But what is clear is that Google is grappling with a problem that threatens it more than anything thus far: The rise of social networks which it cannot access, and therefore not only limit its popularity as a search engine, but shut it out of lots of ad dollars.
Folk were already worried that Google was alienating users of its products—not just search, but documents, email, maps, RSS, calendars and the mobile operating system Android—by pushing them into joining Google+. Now they’re worried, in my view rightly so, that Google is jeopardising its core product, the one that makes it all its money, by fiddling search results to favor this new social network.
It’s unlikely, but if people start to abandon Google search in droves, the rest of the empire will collapse like those walled gardens of old.