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How Google Went From Search Engine To Content Destination
Of things I imagined when I first started writing about Google as a hot new search engine in 1998, the idea that about 15 years later, Google would buy the venerable Frommer’s travel guides or sell “Google Play” gift cards weren’t remotely on the list.
From Search Engine To Content Engine
How did we get from Google being a search engine that pointed to things, like travel guides or gift cards sold by other companies, to being a content company? It’s a position that more than ever before makes it hard for Google to assure other companies that it won’t play favorites with its search listings.
I pondered a headline for this column called “How Google Lost Its Way” or “How Google Became Evil,” but while either probably would pull more traffic, neither are correct. Google’s not lost its way, in the sense of being dysfunctional. It’s gone a different way from where it started, but it’s arguably stronger than ever.
Some might argue that this new path is Google having become the “evil” it speaks against with its “Don’t Be Evil” mantra. No. It wasn’t good nor evil before, as I’ve written previously. It was a company with big ideals, and it still has those big ideals. But the new path it has been on puts it in more conflict with other companies than ever before and thus opens it up to fresh “evil” accusations.
How has this happened to Google, which still continues pledging that it’s fighting the good fight for users and the internet as a whole? I’m going to argue that it’s paranoia that did it, in particular Google’s paranoia that other companies like Microsoft, Apple and Facebook were such a threat that Google created new services that have taken it 180 degrees away from the search engine roots where it started out.
What Is Google?
Google still has a search engine, of course. But the company itself is far beyond that. If you took the classic “What Is Yahoo” question that has confounded both past Yahoo CEOs Jerry Yang and Carol Bartz, rephrased that and put it to Google CEO Larry Page, I’m not sure he could summarize his company any better, in a short, easy-to-understand tweetable message.
Is it the official mission statement?
Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
If so, that tells consumers nothing. How about I try to summarize it by listing all the things that just pop into my head. Let’s go:
Google is a search engine and a social network and a mobile operating system and mobile phones called Nexus and a tablet called Nexus and a place you can buy content like books and games and videos called Google Play and a travel guide and a restaurant guide and a place you can write blog posts and a place you can watch videos on YouTube and a web browser and a way to place ads all over the web and where you can get offers or you can use your phone as a credit card and much more.
That’s not very helpful, either.
To be fair, elsewhere on the Google site, under the image of various Google product logos shown above, the company tries to summarize what it does under a “get stuff done” heading:
Google has grown to offer products beyond search, but the spirit of what he said remains. With all our technologies—from search to Chrome to Gmail—our goal is to make it as easy as possible for you to find the information you need and get the things you need to do done.
“Google. We help you do stuff,” might be a tagline the company should adopt. The only problem with that tagline is that when Google’s mission is to help people do things, then it has no boundaries, nothing preventing it from conflicting with all those other companies out there that help you do specific things.
Google The Content Company
Google’s been more than a search engine for years, but I have never have I seen it so aggressively grow its content offerings as has happened over the past year.
The creation of Google Play as Google’s content store in March was Google fully embracing its new role as content provider, to the degree that this week, we now even have the ability to buy Google Play gift cards in stores. This follows on last week’s news that Google will buy the Frommer’s travel guides.
Google as a publisher and content broker raises a number of issues. Consider these just for the Frommer’s deal alone:
How on earth is a search engine that used to point to travel guides like Frommer’s now trying to own one?
Why on earth did Google put itself in the position where other travel guides now have to wonder if they’re going to be locked out of its search results?
Why hand over that type of ammunition to an anti-Google industry group like FairSearch, whose members have had fairly weak arguments until now (in my opinion) that Google was discriminating against them?
Did Fear Create The Enemies That Were Feared?
I think paranoia got Google to where it is today, with so many big enemies all around. That’s ironic, because if it hadn’t operated out of that paranoia, perhaps some of those companies would be partners.
First, Microsoft was the great evil that Google needed to fight against. Microsoft, with a huge marketshare both in computer operating systems and browsers, could potentially do things to block access to Google’s products and services. Solution? Launch its own browser, Chrome. Launch its own operating system, Chrome OS.
Result? Chrome’s beating Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer by some measures. Take that, Microsoft! Oh, and take that, Mozilla Firefox. It was also a loser, pain eased by Google being one of Mozilla’s major donors. But still, Google’s defensive move against Microsoft also had the effect of putting Mozilla, which had seemed a big Google supporter, into uneasy partner.
Apple has a huge mobile marketshare? Launch Android, so that Google isn’t locked out of the mobile market. Sure, it’s “open,” so there’s no guarantee that Google has a lock-in for its products and services. But that’s sure been the result for most of the leading Android devices out there (the Kindle Fire is a notable exception).
Result? Android beats or is a close rival to Apple’s iOS marketshare, depending on the stats you look at. Google no longer needs to to fear Apple cutting it off. That’s good, because now Apple IS cutting it off, something Apple probably wouldn’t have done if it weren’t for Google being so fearful of Apple that it developed a rival to Apple’s mobile platform.
Goodbye to Google’s integration into iOS Maps. Goodbye YouTube integration. Maybe some of this Google containment policy by Apple might prove to be a different type of strength for Google down the line. But it’s also put Google into the position of fighting Apple directly over patents, turned a former strong ally into a fierce competitor and turned all those Apple fanboys that previously loved Google for working with Apple into doing battle with a new army of Google fanboys.
Then there’s Facebook, where Google feared that a “walled garden” of content that it couldn’t see and social signals it couldn’t detect might harm it in search.
Solution? Launch your own social sharing buttons called +1 and say they’re all about improving search, so it doesn’t seem like you’re launching your own social network. Next, actually launch your own social network called Google+ but suggest that it’s not a social network but rather a “layer.” Yes, it really is a layer, that’s true. But it’s also a social network, too.
Result? Google+ still has a long way to go to rival Facebook’s numbers or usage. Any stats are subject to debate. But Google’s got a viable and growing social network, something to keep it free from Facebook dependency. Of course, in doing so, it also created something that caused Facebook and Twitter to gain some support in suggesting that Google+ was designed to favor Google, when those companies launched a “Don’t Be Evil” tool earlier this year.
Chopping Down The Forest
It’s not that these companies didn’t offer reasons for Google to be paranoid, that they were somehow all innocently fighting for users (rather than their own bottom lines) more than Google. Nor is it that Google solely went into new products out of paranoia. It’s not like Android didn’t have roots before the iPhone. Perhaps the paranoia argument isn’t that strong. If you’re not buying it, that’s fine. The end result, however, is the same.
Somehow, Google has ended up a radically different company than it started out as. It’s still greatly loved by consumers. But it also seems to generate more concerns within the ecosystem of partners and content owners than I’ve ever observed before. That’s something I can’t imagine that Larry Page and Sergey Brin thought would be the case, when they started their company all those years ago.
Paranoia, ambition, whatever you want to put the blame on, I feel like Google has been walking through a forest, chopping down individual trees that have been in the way. No tree is chopped for a “bad” reason. There’s always some user interest that the company feels is being defended. “We’ve got to remove this tree. Everyone will benefit!” But after all this chopping, Google doesn’t just lose sight of the forest for the trees. It doesn’t see the forest at all, because it has chopped down all the trees.
Individually, I can see that it makes sense to Google to buy a Frommer’s or a Zagat, especially when you have companies like TripAdvisor or Yelp screaming that you’re being anti-competitive by harming them by crawling their sites for data (while at the same time also oddly admitting you send them huge amounts of traffic). OK, keep your data. We’ll create our own content. A tree gets chopped, all arguably for a good reason, but some of the forest gets harmed.
The forest, by the way, can be many things, such as Google’s relations to other companies. But I’m thinking more of the forest being the unwritten contract search engines have long had with content owners. We sample some of your data, which allows us to create a viable search engine. In return, we send you lots of traffic. We don’t try to be a destination.
When You Own The Answers
A search engine’s traditional role is to point to content, not to host content. Google’s moves into the content space threaten that contract. It (as well as Bing) is now trying to provide “direct answers” in addition to outbound links. Yes, providing a direct answer to 2+2 makes a lot of sense. Providing commonly known facts can, too.
But what happens when the best “answer” to a search for a song or a TV show is selling that content? Do we find our search results at Google propelling us to Google Play with the direct answer explanation being trotted out? If so, it sucks to be Apple or Amazon.
Speaking of Amazon, what if Google wanted to buy it? After all, wouldn’t owning a major merchant better help Google with its new mission of providing services that let you get stuff done?
How about buying a publication like the New York Times, something Google dismissed in the past? If you’ve got news publishers as in Germany pushing a law requiring you to pay for linking to them, maybe the better “answer” and solution is to just own a news publisher yourself?
Arguments that Google isn’t being fair to other search engines have been laughable to me because it’s fairly absurd for a search engine to point to other search engines. But the primary job of search engines has been to point to destinations. As Google turns more and more into a destination, the fairness of its search results gets opened more and more to question.
That’s the forest being lost, that traditional role, and it’s something that should concern every publisher out there.
It should also concern Google, too. If you’re at Google, reading this, wondering why it sounds like I hate you (I don’t) or others are acting unreasonably (sometimes they are; often they’re concerned), it’s because you’re not seeing the forest. Think about the trees you’re chopping down. Maybe more of them should be left standing. And other companies, the same is true for you, too. We like our trees.
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- Dear Congress: It’s Not OK Not To Know How Search Engines Work, Either
- Google Buys Zagat Ratings, Rocks Local
- Zagat Take Two: Google To Acquire Frommer’s Travel Guides
- Who’s Winning The Browser Wars? It Depends On Whom You Ask
- Mobile Market Share: Microsoft Shows Gains, So Do Apple And Android
- Why Apple Is Going “Containment” Not “Thermonuclear” Against Google In iOS 6
- Apple Gets Into Local Search With New Maps App
- Apple Developers, Fan Sites Show Off The New Apple Maps & Local Search
- iOS 6 Drops YouTube App; A Boon For Google?
- Google (As Motorola) Sues Apple Over Patents, Seeks US Import Ban On iPhones, Macs
- Meet +1: Google’s Answer To The Facebook Like Button
- Google’s Facebook Competitor, The Google+ Social Network, Finally Arrives
- Study — Perhaps Flawed — Finds Sharing Much Higher On Twitter & Facebook, But Why Google+ Is Still Worth The Time
- “Don’t Be Evil” Tool — Backed By Facebook & Twitter — Shows Google’s “Search Plus Your World” Can Go Beyond Google+
- Once Deemed Evil, Google Now Embraces “Paid Inclusion”
- Apple And Google Top Two Brands According To General Sentiment’s Analysis
- For Consumers, Android Is More “Clopen” Than Open
- Android Market Becomes “Google Play,” Reflects Google’s Multiplatform Content Aims
- The Google Hive Mind
- On Google & Being “Evil”