Google: the IE6 of search

Jan 01, 2011

It seems my prediction that 2011 might herald some innovation in the web search field is not as far-fetched as I originally assumed. This post on TechCrunch contains a lengthy list of Google’s flaws, and it chimes with my experience of using Google too. This provides supporting evidence to the thesis that Google search is stagnating; it isn’t keeping up with the increase in both breadth and depth of content on the web, and is failing to stay ahead of the efforts of spammers and “content mills” who profit from filling Google’s results with their own low-quality links.

Google is often described as a near-monopoly in search, but Google is a multi-sided platform which also places it in the role of near-monopsony consumer of web content. To put it another way, most websites now aim to make their content appealing to Google’s search algorithms and largely ignore the rest. “SEO” has become near-synonymous with “getting a good Google rank”.

We’re now so used to thinking of Google as the only way to find things on the web that when we fail to find something with Google, we’re apt to think that this must be because the thing we’re searching for simply doesn’t exist, or it’s our fault for being unable to craft the right combination of keywords necessary to coax the genie from the bottle. We don’t blame Google, we blame the web itself.

Alternatives exist, but adopting them requires conscious effort. The two main non-IE browsers - Firefox and Chrome - both have Google as their default search engine. Google is the default on iPhones and, unsurprisingly, Android devices too. In fact, Google’s attempts at gaining substantial market share in the browser and mobile device marketplaces can be seen partly as an attempt to ensure that their search engine remains the default choice. Mozilla is paid handsomely to ensure that Google remains a central part of the Firefox user experience.

If we have accounts on any of Google’s plethora of free services (and there are hundreds of millions of such users) then we’re always signed in to our Google accounts; Google gets some valuable tracking data from us, and gives us personalised search results in return.

Does this remind you of anything? Looked at a certain way, it’s not too different from the situation that existed around 5 years ago with IE6. Like Google, IE quickly came to be seen as a near-monopoly; web developers treated IE6’s behaviour as the standard to adhere to; sites that didn’t work in IE6 were regarded as “wrong” even if they were standards-compliant, and if sites performed poorly few non-techies would have blamed the browser software; alternatives existed, but were difficult to obtain (at least until March 2010), and Microsoft used all of their commercial muscle to ensure that millions of people encountered IE as the default option; bundling of IE with other Microsoft products, or the “enhancement” of Microsoft web properties when using IE pushed people towards the browser. All of these explain how a powerful incumbent can gain a dominant position in the market and, by using their strength in adjacent markets, and relying on the dependable habits of ordinary users, they can maintain that dominance even when the quality of the product stagnates or declines.

Of course, in theory, Google’s grip on the search marketplace should not be as strong as Microsoft’s grip on the browser and OS markets was. Changing your search engine is easier than changing your OS or your browser. But the psychological grip that Google has on its users may be greater than the grip IE6 had. We rely on Google because we trust their search results. By and large, Google might send us to some pretty dull websites that don’t contain what we want, but it’s unlikely to send us to something positively dangerous, containing viruses or phishing scams (though clearly this is not always the case). We trust Google to guide us along safe passageways across the web, and we might not trust a new search engine in the same way. Even if Google is under-performing, the psychological benefit of the trusted brand may outweigh this in the minds of users.

In my opinion, Google’s dominance of search cannot be sustained forever. The arms race against the spammers makes Google’s job very difficult; for every technical improvement they make to their search algorithms, the spammers fight back. And the spammers are more varied and agile; Google is a monolith in comparison. Meanwhile, newer search engines such as DuckDuckGo and Blekko are much less troubled by spam simply because nobody is really targeting their platforms. They have the same advantages that Macs have over Windows when it comes to viruses: there are very few Mac viruses because there’s much less to gain by writing them. It seems highly plausible that alternative search engines will be able to offer definitely better results than Google does, and that this gap may grow. Over time, the pressure to switch away from Google may become significant. Right now, it’s just the early adopters who are thinking about this, but these are the same kinds of people who were using Opera or Firefox 1.0 when IE6 was at the peak of its market share. It will probably take most of a decade for anyone to overturn Google’s entrenched position in the market, but right now it feels like the opportunity to start the process has opened up.