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net.wars: Who's afraid of the big, bad Google?

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 28 April 2006


I honestly think that one of the happiest days in my life online was the day I found Google. At the time, the best search engine was Altavista, and it had become dog-awful to use: cluttered, slow, messy, and annoying. Google was the online user's dream: clean, white screen, cute logo, speed, good results. Home. No one may ever really beat a path to the door of the manufacturer of a better mouse trap, but they certainly did to a better search engine.

Wendy M Grossman

It took a long time - or it seemed like it - for the world to catch up. "Only geeks use it," I was told for some years.

"But how can they make any money?" financial analysts complained. The received wisdom, even when Google reinvented advertising with paid search, was that Google's audience could vanish overnight if someone came along with a better search engine.

Two problems with that. First, it's really hard to come up with a better search engine than Google. Second, Google was capable of finding people working on technology to improve search engines - and hiring them.

Search engine audiences turn out to be more locked in than it appeared in the rear-view mirror. True, most people don't care what search engine they use as long as they get good results; but that also means they are unlikely to change. Google won on usability as much as quality of results, and the longer you use it the more you learn about how to work with it.

The first stirrings of Google dislike probably showed up when Google bought Dejanews and began constructing the most comprehensive Usenet archive available. People who had posted to Usenet in the early days had thought of their ramblings as ephemeral. Now, they were going to be available for every Tom, Dick, and Maureen in Human Resources to search. Of course, then everyone loved Google again when it did Google Earth.

Concern about Google seemed to begin among privacy advocates with Gmail, because of its vast storage and the automatic searching that inserts ads. Log in, read your email, do your searches, and Google collects all the data. Valuable stuff. Search your hard drive. Upload its contents to Google as a backup.

At this point, there seems to be no doubt that Google is becoming the Microsoft of online information. You do not have to own the information itself - any more than Microsoft had to make computers. It is sufficient to control the gateways. In Microsoft's case, that was the operating system. In Google's case, it's the search engines and, just as important, the advertising. Almost every blog that can carry advertising - even Nick Carr's discussion this week of Google's float - carries Google AdSense.

In it, Carr noted something I've been pondering for some time: the vastness of the universe of people who have signed up for AdSense, and the revenues Google has derived from the clicks on their sites, and the percentage of those people whose payouts have not reached the $100 necessary to actually get paid. I am one of the people in that universe; there must be millions of us.

The float thus generated seems hardly likely to make a dent in a company of the size that Google now is - but on the other hand, float is how Warren Buffett became the second richest man in America.

Carr also notes that the terms and conditions that accompany signing up for AdSense ban people from disparaging Google. And it appears that you can be thrown out of AdSense for other reasons, such as displaying Google ads next to content that might upset the advertisers. I'm not convinced that being dumped out of AdSense has to end a successful blog, though it certainly means you need to rethink where your income will come from. But AdSense is like eBay: it matches, through search, buyers and sellers. And like eBay, the bigger its user base gets the more successful it will be at doing so.

Every move Google makes now is offending someone. Google Print upsets publishers and some authors. Google's plans to digitise books for online reading upsets many libraries. Telephone companies. Newspapers publishers losing classified ads. All media sources, convinced that Google News will cost them differentiation between the Kew Society Newsletter and CNN. Human rights groups, when Google cooperated with China. eBay, which would like to reduce its dependence on foreign search engines. Business Week has a long list. Even its doodles, surely the best part of its service - a search engine that's fast and sometimes makes me laugh! - got it in trouble with the Miró estate. You must, I suppose, be doing something right in business terms if this many people feel threatened.

Even so, the reality is that Google is never going to be hated the way people hate Microsoft, which is back in antitrust court in the EU this week. For a very simple reason. Everyone's primary contact with Microsoft is the daily frustrations of using Windows. It is all negative. Everyone's primary contact with Google, however, is that it finds you things you wanted. That's a hard burst of positive fuzzies to overcome.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).