Photo: Illustration: Ellis Hamburger
Last week, I wrote that Google adding Google+ pages to search results may have been the worst mistake the company ever made.Am I overreacting? My editor in chief Henry Blodget and colleague Jay Yarow both think the changes are minor and are not going to be noticed by most people.
They’re probably right. On their own, these particular changes are not going to break Google’s search engine or send normal people flocking to Bing.
But they show how much Google has changed since it started.
First, as researcher Ben Edelman points out in a very well documented blog post from last week, this is far from the first time Google has used its search engine to drive traffic to its other sites. In fact, Edelman alleges that Google has been favouring its own sites — Maps, News, Shopping, and many more — for years in many ways:
- Embedding data from Google sites directly into search results. For instance, when Google started putting actual maps from its Google Maps service into search in 2007, traffic went up dramatically. “Traffic to Google Maps tripled while traffic to competing map sites fell by half.”
- Giving special benefits to its own sites in search results: Edelman writes: “For example, Google Maps appears with an oversized full-colour embedded map, whereas links to other map services appear only as plain hyperlinks. So too for links to Google Shopping, which often feature tabular reports of product pictures, vendors, and prices, whereas competing comparison shopping search engines receive only bare text. Until June 2011, Google Checkout advertisers enjoyed a special logo adjacent to their AdWords ads — particularly valuable since image advertisements were essentially nonexistent throughout that period. But advertisers who chose other streamlined checkout tools (like Paypal) got no such benefit.”
- Manually placing its own sites in results for certain keywords. Edelman can’t prove this allegation, but some of his past research seems to reveal a “hard coding” bias in certain keywords.
Edelman has done consulting work for Microsoft, but even so, the whole post is worth a read. (It contains some other allegations about Google’s behaviour as well, like it used its search engine to force third parties to agree to terms they otherwise wouldn’t have agreed to.)
None of this is necessarily illegal — that’s up to regulators and courts to decide.
But it’s a stark contrast from what Google used to be. Google established its brand by being the ANTI-portal, the alternative to all the walled gardens like AOL and (early) MSN and portal sites like Yahoo and (later) MSN.
Ask Google the question. It finds the answer. Engineers were in charge — not businesspeople. (One ex-Googler from the early days reminded me that Google used to have links to other search engines like Inktomi in case its results weren’t good enough.)
Just look at this excerpt from a 2004 Playboy interview with Larry Page, which was pointed out by a reader:
PLAYBOY: With the addition of e-mail, Froogle—your new shopping site—and Google news, plus your search engine, will Google become a portal similar to Yahoo, AOL or MSN? Many Internet companies were founded as portals. It was assumed that the more services you provided, the longer people would stay on your website and the more revenue you could generate from advertising and pay services.
PAGE: We built a business on the opposite message. We want you to come to Google and quickly find what you want. Then we’re happy to send you to the other sites. In fact, that’s the point. The portal strategy tries to own all of the information.
PLAYBOY: Portals attempt to create what they call sticky content to keep a user as long as possible.
PAGE: That’s the problem. Most portals show their own content above content elsewhere on the web. We feel that’s a conflict of interest, analogous to taking money for search results. Their search engine doesn’t necessarily provide the best results; it provides the portal’s results. Google conscientiously tries to stay away from that. We want to get you out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible. It’s a very different model.
PLAYBOY: Until you launched news, Gmail, Froogle and similar services.
PAGE: These are just other technologies to help you use the web. They’re an alternative, hopefully a good one. But we continue to point users to the best websites and try to do whatever is in their best interest. With news, we’re not buying information and then pointing users to information we own. We collect many news sources, list them and point the user to other websites. Gmail is just a good mail program with lots of storage.
Google has been moving away from that strategy for a long time.
Will the masses notice?
They haven’t so far. Google’s search traffic and share has kept growing as it’s added more and more Google services to search results.
But something about last week’s changes pushed at least a few people over the edge.
Maybe it’s just that Google is so obviously coming from behind in social networking, and this seemed like a cheap catch-up trick — sort of like a lot of people perceive Microsoft’s patent lawsuits against Android. Or maybe the steady drumbeat of news about government investigations has caused more people to pay close attention to what Google is turning into.
Or maybe some people in the tech industry just hate companies who win for too long.
As I said last week, keep checking the ComScore stats over the next year to see if anybody else even cares.