Let’s start by asking this question:
Is Google becoming the world’s biggest SEO company?
Google handles nearly two-thirds of Internet search queries worldwide. Analysts reckon that most Web sites rely on the search engine for half of their traffic. When Google engineers tweak its supersecret algorithm — as they do hundreds of times a year — they can break the business of a Web site that is pushed down the rankings.
— and then goes on about the company’s “pecuniary incentives to favor its own over rivals” and how “the potential impact of Google’s algorithm on the Internet economy is such that it is worth exploring ways to ensure that the editorial policy guiding Google’s tweaks is solely intended to improve the quality of the results and not to help Google’s other businesses.”
The framing here is business. That is, the Times is wringing its hands about Google’s influence over businesses on the Web. That’s fine, but is business all the Web is about? Is the “Internet economy” limited to businesses with Web sites? Is it limited to the Web at all? What about email and all the other stuff supported by Internet protocols? Have the Internet and the Web, both creations of non-commercial entities and purposes, turned entirely into commercial places? The Times seems to think so.
Google’s dominance of the search business is an interesting problem, but it’s also something of a red herring. Seems to me the bigger problem is what the search business — which consists entirely of advertising — is doing to the Web.
Ever since Google invented AdSense, making it possible for advertising to appear on websites of all kinds, there has been a rush to riches, or at least toward making a few bucks, by grabbing some of that click-through money. That’s what SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is mostly about. As a result the number of websites that exist mostly — or entirely — to make advertising money, has grown. I’ve been looking for numbers on this and can’t find any, but I’ll bet that the non-commercial slice of the Web’s total pie has been shrinking, and the portion paid for by advertising (or just looking to make money on advertising) has been growing.
Thus it makes sense that Google will care more about that growing slice of the Web’s pie, and less about the non-commercial stuff. I’m not saying that’s the case. It just seems to me that the Web is more about advertising than ever, and a lot more of that gets in the way of what we might be looking for — especially if what we want isn’t advertised.
So that’s one thing. Here’s another: Adam Rifkin‘s Pandas and Lobsters: Why Google Cannot Build Social Applications. Very insightful and interesting piece. Not sure I agree with all of it, but it does make me think — about malls.
Remember back when e-commerce was new, in the mid-90s? Seemed like all the big guys and wannabes wanted to build malls on the Web. It was wacky, because the Web isn’t a farm on the edge of town that you can pave and put a bunch of stores on. It’s a wide open space. But an interesting thing has happened here, fifteen years later. “Social” sites are malls. They’re places people go to hang out and buy stuff. They’re enclosed, separate. Big and accomodating. Fun to be in. But private. Here’s a long quote from Adam:
Facebook is a lobster trap and your friends are the bait. On social networks we are all lobsters, and lobsters just wanna have fun. Every time a friend shares a status, a link, a like, a comment, or a photo, Facebook has more bait to lure me back. Facebook is literally filled with master baiters: Whenever I return to Facebook I am barraged with information about many friends, to encourage me to stick around and click around. Every time I react with a like or comment, or put a piece of content in, I’m serving as Facebook bait myself. Facebook keeps our friends as hostages, so although we can check out of Hotel Facebook any time we like, we can never leave. So we linger. And we lurk. And we luxuriate. The illogical extreme of content-as-bait are the Facebook games where the content is virtual bullshit. Social apps are lobster traps; Google apps do not bait users with their friends.
Quora is restaurant that serves huge quantities of bacn and toast. Quora is a dozen people running dozens of experiments in how to optimally use bacn to get people to return to Quora, and how to use toast to keep them there. Bacn is email you want but not right now, and Quora has 40 flavors of it that you can order. Quora’s main use of Bacn is to sizzle with something delicious (a new answer to a question you follow, a new Facebook friend has been caught in the Quora lobster trap, etc.) to entice you to come back to Quora. Then, once you’re there, the toast starts popping. Quora shifts the content to things you care about and hides things you don’t care about in real-time, and subtly pops up notifications while you’re playing, to entice you to keep sticking around and clicking around. Some toast is so subtle it doesn’t even look like a pop-up notification — it just looks like a link embedded in the page with some breadcrumbs that appear in real-time to take you to some place on Quora it knows you’ll find irresistible. For every user’s action, bacn’s and toast’s fly out to others in search of reactions. (Aside: if I were Twitter, I would be worried. Real-time user interfaces are more addictive than pseudo-real-time interfaces; what if Quora took all of its technology and decided to use it to build a better Twitter?) Social apps are action-reaction interaction loops; Google apps are designed just for action.
I really don’t care that Google sucks at social apps (if that’s true, and I’m not sure it is… not totally, anyway). What I care about is that all this social stuff happens in private spaces. Maybe there’s a better metaphor than malls, but I can’t think of one.
Oh, and how do these malls make their money? Advertising. Not entirely, but to a large extent.
The problem with that is what it has always been. Advertising is guesswork, and most advertising is wasted, even when advertisers only pay for click-throughs. The misses far outnumber the hits, and that’s a lot of waste — of server cycles, of bandwidth, of time, of pixels, and of rods and cones in the backs of our eyes. Ad folks calls the misses “impressions,” but who’s impressed?
It helps to remember what the Web was in the first place — and what the Web is still for. Nobody has ever explained that better than David Weinberger, in a Cluetrain Manifesto chapter called The Longing. David wrote that in 1999. Like other fine antiques, it only gets more valuable with age. And with the degree to which modern forms depart from old and better ideals.
[Later...] There’s always a bigger picture, of course. I love this one from Ethan Zuckerman, whose has been spreading my horizons for a long time and keeps getting batter at it.
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