Having been around the internet since long before there was an internet, one of the things you learn is that sites, companies, and products come and go. For every mountain that is built, there is another group with earth movers set to tear it down. So while companies like Facebook and Google currently dominate the internet landscape, there is little indication that they will be there in the future.
There has been plenty of people suggesting that Both Facebook and Google have already “jumped the shark” and have move to points where they are harder to take seriously. Facebook in particular has suffered in dealing with the public on privacy issues, and have dealt business wise with significantly poorer income on mobile based customers. Recent moves to try to shore up the bottom line have gotten some users upset, and lead to Google pointing out that their social network does not permit sponsored stories forced into your timeline.
Google itself is facing plenty of issues. This story from the CNBC suggests that Google could be all but gone in 5 years, but I think that this story misses perhaps the bigger issues that exist within Google, namely that their core search product is actually getting to be a poorer and poorer choice for searching online.
In the last year or so, Google has rolled out many changes to it’s systems for indexing the web and return the results to users. The so called Panda and Penguin updates have had the effects of churning up the results and really giving the displayed results a different look and feel. But these changes are to me at the very core of a problem within Google. The P&P updates have been aimed at rising “quality” sites to the top of Google’s results, with that quality calculated in many different ways. One of the significant drivers at this point isn’t links to a given site, but rather links with social relevancy. So a link on a twitter or facebook post may have more weight than a link from another site, example.
The effects are that Google tends now to return popular pages in it’s results. It’s sort of like the old Ray Davies song, “Give the People What They Want”. Google has moved to become perhaps one of the most obvious mirrors of what society likes and talks about. In doing so, however, I think they have made the mistake of making their results less relevant to themselves, and more relevant perhaps in a social media discussion sort of a way. It’s not the best pages that are at the top of the results, but rather, it’s the pages people are talking about the most.
Oddly, I find that this is creating a sort of bad feedback loop. Rather than helping people to find the best pages, Google helps them find popular pages, which is something that is already occurring in an organic fashion through social media. So instead of proposing the best pages for a given search and expanding people’s horizons, Google is instead focusing more on what people already like, and are returning them results which narrow the world’s focus to a smaller and smaller subset of sites. The real issue comes when people then go to social media as a result of their search on Google and post up links and talk about something. That completes a feedback look, as those very links will help to determine what is returned in the next Google search. Those search results drive social media discussions, and the whole thing starts to spiral out of control.
It should be noted that Google’s algorithmic changes have also severely cut into the reported traffic to index sites, guides, reviews, and promotional websites, even when these sites might be the most relevant pages out there. Google now appears to treat those sites as “middlemen” on the internet, and seems intent to make them less relevant in their search results, which in turn drive social media discussion, which in turn reinforces those narrowed search results.
At this point, Google has taken the sort of steps that leave it vulnerable to more nimble and more focused competition. As more and more people realize that Google search results aren’t really the best around, the more these people will take to other sites and other search methods. If Google’s search traffic drops in a notable way, the effects on their stock could be significant.
I should also say that I think that Google will be hit with anti-trust investigations that will lead to significant changes inside the company (and in the way it works) over the next few years. Their failure to separate “church and state” (search and other products) as well as their current dominant position in search makes it very likely that someone, somewhere will take a legal swipe at them, and all the cash in the world may not be able to save Google from a changed and perhaps separated future. At that point, Google as we know it will have reached it’s end game, eaten apart from the inside rather than the outside.