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Posts Tagged ‘search engines’

As Google grows bigger and deeper the op-eds and various critics are calling for hard core scrutiny and even regulation.

The latest piece I’ve come across is this rather drab call for “search neutrality” in the New York Times.

Without search neutrality rules to constrain Google’s competitive advantage, we may be heading toward a bleakly uniform world of Google Everything — Google Travel, Google Finance, Google Insurance, Google Real Estate, Google Telecoms and, of course, Google Books.

Really?

Does a consumer really have to use Google to find information on all these things?  No.   There are many much better providers of all those information sources.  Does Google actually make money directly on all those categories?  No.   Sure, people advertise on Google to bring people to transactions, but Google isn’t making money directly from the consumer on those ads.

The point of the op-ed relies on agreeing that Google is a gatekeeper to information access.  As a gatekeeper it unfairly restricts competition by promoting its own applications and information sources over third parties.  This is a false representation of Google.   Google is a search engine that a consumer may or may not choose to use.   It just so happens that millions of consumers choose to use Google and Google has negotiated enough deals to make it easier to choose Google.  However, hopping online does not require you to use Google at all.  There are many search engines, many mapping sites, many free email services, many in browser applications and so on.

Web search is not the ONLY way to find things online.  In fact it’s not even the number 1 way most people find information online.  Word of mouth via social networks, email, IMs is still the number 1 way people get to things online.   For websites and services that no one talks about/knows about Google is the number 1 people will find it.  That’s not a problem caused by big bad Google… in fact, the only reason businesses that can only be found via Google exist is, well, because of Google.

The author of the op-ed is a co-founder of a service called FoundEm, a price comparison site (and seller of its underlying technology).    Clearly, FoundEm has had some competitive issues with Google.  That happens.  And FoundEm should fight for its position in Google in any legal way.  However, I don’t think the experience of FoundEm is any way a justification for some regulation of Google in the form of enforced Neutrality.   Google pays to build a big fat index of the web and provide it free to consumers.  No where in that business does Google guarantee it’s the best, most authoritative source of information or way to find it.  It simple is useful enough to most people that they assume Google has it all.   Again, that’s not Google’s fault and Google should not be forced to include information and services it doesn’t think helps its clients and consumers.

There’s a more legitimate bone to pick with ISPs that hijack mistyped address and querystrings and send to advertiser only pages.  That’s an actual abuse of gatekeeper status – the consumer, in that case really doesn’t have a choice of information sources AND in many areas in the US there is only 1 ISP available.

Rather than picking on Google via regulation just out innovate them – in product and marketing.  Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Bing, LinkedIn and more have found ways to compete without Google.   In a world less and less about finding webpages and more about connecting useful information and synthesizing live data Google’s Web Search is losing relevance as a functional tool for users.  We’re a decade away from the market seeing that en masse, but it’s happening.  Web Search IS NOT a tractable problem long term and is constantly being thwarted by spam, new technologies, new presentation formats, the mobile world, and so forth.  The Google folks are very smart and forward thinking –  they are investing in NON SEARCH based products and services, knowing that the gravy train will run out eventually.

I mean think about it… what’s the web search market really worth?  Google is spinning off 20 billion in revenue, the other major competitors much less.   Let’s make a high estimate of $50 billion in direct revenue for the web search industry.  That’s not that big.  Barely a market at all in the grand scheme.  Perhaps what Google is doing is bigger than the revenues imply.  Maybe all the info they are collecting is much more of a scary thing that being a dominate #1 search engine.   Even by that measure google is probably less deep in its insights of important data compared to Facebook or even Yahoo!

Do I worry about Google?  Sure, personally I do with my own information.  As a company acting as an unfair monopoly, no, not at all.  I don’t have to use them.  I don’t have to buy ads on Google.  I can close my gmail account.  They don’t really even have aggressive retention methods like phone companies, insurance providers and ISPs (can’t cancel without 40 phone calls!).

Best way to beat a big business is to do what it grows too big to do – imagine and execute on that imagination.   Google can’t disrupt the gravy train – but small businesses can.   Build a great product, market aggressively and leave the regulation and activism to issues that really need it….

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No. Not really.

This is the main reason most new search engines fail.  This is also why refreshes to existing search engines with radical features don’t work particularly well either.

It’s really a misconception that search engines could be made better.  Common discussion suggests one day the search engines will magically find what we need if only someone will write the perfect semantic algorithms or rank pages better.  Other common attempts to improve search include improving the search interface via cleaner design, more links, less links, categorization and so on.  It is all a big fat waste of time.

The web is messy.  It’s mostly unstructured.  Structure is buried in noise and the noise grows very fast. With this ever growing mess,  the search engines do exactly what we all want them to do.  They help users source possibilities.   They take this mass of web pages, databases and media and make it navigable.   The idea of one engine to rule them all is a bit unrealistic, and probably intractable.  Just do a little thought experiment – can you imagine data that is not effectively accessed and navigable via a little search box? I can – Maps.  So we have Google Earth, Maps and other ways of moving through that data.  Images.  Images are better navigated visually (for a variety of reasons, not least of which is characterizing an image in words…)  There are many other examples.

Another way to think of it… search is just a first layer of discovery.  Yes, of course, we can go deeper than a first effort in some search activities, but generally speaking it can only give you a rough cut.  Where is boundary on that?  No one knows and it changes all the time, but it generally is a thin layer compared to the depth one needs to go to really dig into a data set or subject matter.  This limit arises from the noise on the web, the loose structure of hyperlinks, folksomonies and presentation layers.  The limit is also a result of the difficulty in forming short statements that fit in a search box that properly characterize what one is looking for and filter what one doesn’t want to see.

Again, these are not problems.  Search is what it is and it works.  Just as tables of contents, indices, bibliographies, reference librarians, bookmarks, dog ears, post it notes all do what they should and do it well.  We’re never going to need or want fewer ways to navigate and take notes.  The variety is where efficiency lies.

So if you’re waiting around for a Google killer in web search.  Move on.  It ain’t going to happen.  There’s no big enough reason that it would.  What would that mean anyway? [many great search engines exist that are at least as capable as Google…]

Sure you might have someone that competes with Google for ad dollars, but no one is going to compete with in indexing the web and doing your first layer search. There is definitely roomo innovate  and compete with Google in delivering highly targeted, high performance advertising.  There is definitely a way to compete for audience as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and others demonstrate.

Finally, the cost of indexing and mining the web will never get cheaper.  Even though the hardware and bandwidth prices go down the algorithmic methods, spam fighting, and the raw “keeping up with the web” continue to grow.  Perhaps the most important point here is that advertising budgets have nothing to do with these costs.  That is, improvements in the technology, at this point, don’t necessarily equate to a growth in advertising revenue.  This is one reason why it’s probably not feasible to compete in web search and, my hypothesis is, that growing search ad revenue enough to keep up with the costs is going to be almost impossible.  Add to this the idea that there are no more users for search engines to entice into using them.  Everyone that uses search is using Google or the others.  The search companies have to go outside of web search to gain audience.   At some point the existing model for search and search advertising is going to flatten (it might already be doing that).  This further destroys any motivation to innovate in pure web search.

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