Is Google’s domination of the Internet finally over? Look for me… | John Naughton
For seasoned Internet users, the chronology of our era is divided into two ages: BG and AG – before and after Google. The year 1998 marks the dividing line. Previously, as the web grew exponentially, a host of “search engines” attempted to provide it with searchable indexes. The best of them was Alta Vista, which was launched in 1995 and provided the web’s first full-text searchable database through a simple interface. It was the engine I and most of my colleagues used until the fateful day in 1998 when an even more austere web page appeared with a simple text box and almost nothing but the Google name. And from the moment you first used it, there was no turning back.
Why? Because Google has used an original way to prioritize the relevance of results from a query. It actually did an automated peer review of websites. The more web pages linked to a particular site, the more likely it was to be relevant and therefore ranked higher. The algorithm, called Rankingwho did this was the foundation on which Google’s dominance of Internet search was built.
The reason Google brushed it all off before is that its ranking system seemed objective: it simply counted the links and ranked them accordingly. It could be played, of course, and a mini-industry of search engine optimizers evolved to try to ensure that a Google search would rank their clients’ pages high. But Google users could at least be sure that the company itself was not favoring certain results over others. No advertising was involved.
The company’s founders believed that favoring advertisers’ pages would undermine the integrity of their bottom line. “We are waiting,” they wrote in 1998, “that advertising-supported search engines will be inherently biased in favor of advertisers and away from consumer needs…we believe that the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives to make it crucial to ‘to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic field’.
Absolutely. But then, after burning investors’ money for two years, the founders discovered in 2000 that high-minded objectivity wasn’t paying the rent and so they turned into surveillance capitalists, monitoring their users to glean information about them that may be of interest to advertisers. Between that date and the company’s IPO in 2004, Google’s revenue grew by almost 4,000%.
For a long time, the intrusion of advertising considerations didn’t seem to bother users too much, though it understandably pissed off competitors and industry regulators, especially in the EU (to which Google has paid billions). euros in fines). Despite this, its position as the dominant search engine in large parts of the world has remained stable since, well, forever. This suggests that the company must be doing something right, if only because, unlike Facebook, for example, genuine alternative search engines are readily available.
All of this makes the online commotion generated by a blog post by Dmitri Brereton, software engineer at a San Francisco company, intriguing. Under the headline Google Search Is Dying, Brereton wrote, “If you’ve recently tried to search for a recipe or product review, I don’t need to tell you that Google search results have sucked. You would have already noticed that the first non-advertising results are SEO [search engine optimisation] optimized sites filled with affiliate links and advertisements.
He admits that Google still gives decent results for many other categories, “especially when it comes to factual information. You might think Google’s results are pretty good for you, and you have no idea what I’m talking about. What you don’t realize is that you’ve censored yourself by searching for most of the things you would have wanted to search for.You already know subconsciously that Google isn’t going to return a good result.
It struck me as a bit condescending, though it got a chorus of approval on Reddit and Hacker News and even a piece in New Yorker. The general tenor of the discussion was that only ignorant idiots would do a simple Google search rather than the complex formulas available to those who know what they are doing.
Since I don’t have a dog in this fight (I use Google very little and DuckDuckGo most of the time), my hunch is that it’s the online equivalent of a storm in a teacup. When I use Google it’s usually for factual information and so my experience may be different than the Reddit and Hacker News crowd. It may be, as the New Yorker suggests that the results coming from Google reflect the quality of the crowd that optimizes SEO to play PageRank.
The CEO of DuckDuckGo (who of course has a dog in the fight) offers three other possible reasons for dissatisfaction with Google. One is users’ aversion to being tracked. Another is annoyance at the way Google prioritizes its own products in shopping-related search results. And the third? Just boredom: we’ve been living in AG for so long that people yearn for something different. If that’s what’s really bothering them, they need to remember that the solutions are just a click away.
what i read
Putin’s Challenge to the American Right is a terrific outburst from Andrew Sullivan on his blog.
Pride before a fall
The remarkable essay by Peter Savodnik The dawn of non-civilization examines Western (and particularly American) hubris after 1989.
In Prepare for defeatFrancis Fukuyama describes (on the American goal blog) why he thinks Vladimir Putin is destined to lose.