February 03, 2012, 11:08 AM — So I've been thinking lately…
Has Google taken over the Internet?
No, I'm not wearing a tin-foil hat, and I'm not looking for a secret villain's lair when I am in Silicon Valley at the end of the month (though wouldn't the "Eye of Sauron" be synonymous with "Mountain View"? Hmmm…). But there have been some incidents over the years that have made me stop and ponder a bit about the huge amount of quiet influence Google seems to have on commercial activity on the Web.
What prompted this current line of thought was the announcement last month from Google that they would be altering their search algorithms to penalize web sites that have too many ads at the top of their pages. Such top-heavy sites would be pushed down lower in search results.
"As we’ve mentioned previously, we've heard complaints from users that if they click on a result and it’s difficult to find the actual content, they aren’t happy with the experience. Rather than scrolling down the page past a slew of ads, users want to see content right away. So sites that don’t have much content 'above-the-fold' can be affected by this change."
Now, let me be clear: from a consumer point of view, I like this idea. Even though much of my current income is ultimately derived from ads sold on web sites like this one, I personally don't like visiting sites with so many ads, you can't immediately see the content. From a professional standpoint, I also like the change, since I don't want my readers irked by a poorly designed site. They'll be irked enough by what I'm actually writing.
But did we just see what happened here? With the push of a proverbial button, this algorithmic change just altered the business processes and revenue gathering practice of hundreds of thousands of web sites. Again, these weren't exactly great business processes--I would even venture to say that they weren't particularly beneficial to end users. But one company--just one--just dictated the fortunes of a great many others.
This happens all of the time, of course. When a big-box retailer like Wal-Mart selects a few vendors out of many to sell, say, toothpaste, the left-out vendors are also immediately negatively influenced. And the chosen ones feel the positive effects.
That kind of influence is a direct relationship: Wal-Mart owns the stores, so of course they get to select what products are stocked on the shelves. Google, on the other hand, does not own the Internet.
But with the kind of influence Google is exerting, you could make a case that they might as well own it. Owning something, after all, really means nothing if you don't control it. Ask any invaded country about that.
The fact that Google makes and sells its own ads is another problem, one of hypocrisy. I will leave learned folks like Danny Sullivan to handle this particular issue.
For my part, I am concerned about the influence issue… because I foresee potential problems with how this influence could seriously damage commerce on the Internet. Already, there's a whole industry of consultants out there that prognosticate on Google's algorithms in order to gin up search results for their clients, so this influence is clearly nothing new.
I am worried that even in the best of intentions, the effects of what Google does will irreparably harm businesses. We've seen this before… when Google released its Panda search algorithm in 2011, I personally watched a number of publishing sites scramble to adapt to the changes in order to remain relevant. I also know of one publisher that took a huge drop in traffic because they were using a lot of recycled content--something that Panda was specifically downgrading in an effort to reduce the prominence of "content farms."
Again, I'm not a fan of content farms. They regularly steal content or pay writers minimal wages to flood the Internet with content just to create a platform for ads. So, I could appreciate Panda on many levels. This was another case of a positive change (for many) that had negative effects (for a few).
I'm not naive about this. We live in a closed, entropic universe and I am big believer, on a mathematical level, that nothing in Life, the Universe, and Everything is free. Everything has a cost.
But, even ascribing non-evil intent to Google, the potential for damage is there. It would be like putting the world's gentlest elephant in a china shop and waiting to see what would happen. It does not bode well, and it may have a negative effect on at least one free software project.
Because when I see the kind of influence already has in advertisement and web commerce, then looking at Google's involvement in the Chrome browser, I cannot shake the feeling that the Mozilla Foundation is one of those delicate pieces of glass in the shop, just sitting next to the elephant, waiting.
It's worse than that, actually: Mozilla's flagship application--and indeed the much of the entire organization--is now one of the primary financial supporters of Mozilla. And the Mozilla Foundation seems to think this is a good thing--because to date they seem unwilling to change this situation.
The elephant is not just in the china shop, it's holding Mozilla in it's trunk.
With this kind of power, Google doesn't have to be evil. Just being this big may be more than enough trouble.
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