Over a decade ago when I was a senior at Hawken School I can remember listening to a conversation between Dr. Carr, our headmaster at the time, and our IT manager (whose name I can’t remember). The year was 1996 and Google had yet to reach omnipotence. As a matter of fact, Netscape and Yahoo! were the search engines of choice.
I vividly recall Carr saying that with the tremendous aggregation of content occurring online, the primary challenge would be what to do with all the content. In hindsight, Carr’s point seems fairly acute considering Google’s search algorithm has not only served to frame our experience of the Internet, but “Googling” has become entrenched in our everyday lives.
As Google continues to grow at an unprecedented rate and purchase just about every emerging start-up that comes onto the horizon, it seems that the warnings of theorists like Hargittai, McChesney, Nissenbaum (and a host of others) are coming to fruition.
Take for example Google’s purchase of Blogger, a popular blog content management software. The usability of content management systems like Blogger is what is fueling the movement popularly referred to as Web 2.0 or social media because software like Blogger facilitates the gap between thought and actualization through publishing.
From a commercial perspective the value of Blogger to Google is in the advertising that can be sold on the content that is being fueled by the software. Although from an aesthetic perspective Blogger may not look like it is fully integrated into the Googleopoly, make no mistake – it is fully integrated. As a matter of fact, AdSense (Google’s ad network) is integrated directly into the dashboard itself making it easy for anyone to set up a blog and start making money through their blog in a matter of seconds. And with every new blog that is set up, and every cent earned from a click, Google’s power expands.
Now what happens in search is that Google will find ways to boost the visibility of Blogger because the more visible Blogger is, the more money Google stands to earn.
Sound like a conspiracy theory? Just run a Google query for blog and see for yourself. Wikipedia comes up in the pole position, immediately followed by Blogger. The official Google blog comes up #4. What’s more, the blogs that run on Blogger consistently perform at the top of the Google heap.
What is funny to me about all this is that traditionally, the Google brand has been associated with openness and innovation, but their blogging software is far inferior to the open source WordPress (which this blog runs on). It seems like most of the “innovations” being released by Blogger are oriented around making it easier for a broader population of people to publish and sell advertising on their content.
So Google has social media figured out then?
The competitive advantage that has brought Google to the forefront of the online world and kept them firmly entrenched at #1, has been the algorithm.
The algorithm is all about search and retrieval, it is about eternally answering the questions of a mass audience of empowered media consumers.
By “empowered” I mean that we are still media consumers but we have more of an ability to make choices about which media we consume – because of solutions like Google.
Suddenly, we are entering a second wave of media inundation and I don’t believe that the Google algorithm is going to be able of handling the evolving needs of a population of online users who have shifted from being empowered consumers into something new.
My own anecdotal experience reveals an inbox flooded with e-mails and Web alerts, an RSS reader flooded with feeds I have subscribed to, social network profiles that have countless messages, an IM client flooded with messages, and a Web browser flooded with bookmarks. This is the net result of my own evolution from being an empowered media consumer to being a media producer, and the similar evolution of others within my network.
My solution to this new wave of inundation is currently ad-hoc. I browse over the titles of the various messages, pay special attention to the sender of the message and try to prioritize based on my job responsibilities, family responsibilities, etc.. These are all activities that are so personal and spontaneous that the Google algorithm simply does me no good.
If I need information on a restaurant I am interested in going to I know Google will be there, but if I need a method for helping to organize my everyday experience of the Web – Google has simply fallen by the wayside and selling more AdSense and juicing their properties in search isn’t the way for Google to pick up its game.
Returning back to Dr. Carr’s prophetic vision of the future, it is my belief that the next challenge we face will be to move beyond search and to something new – something more personalized and reflexive than search. Something that we adopt that helps filter our new experience of the Internet into something manageable and perhaps even enjoyable.
This will be life after Google.