It’s just over 13 years since Google launched and not much less since it came to dominate the business of internet search.
So great is the influence of search engines that an industry has grown up simply to ‘game’ whatever system is put in place to deliver the most relevant results and exclude irrelevant, bogus or malicious ones.
Though it seems as though Google has been with us forever and that it’s presence at the heart of the web will be eternal, it may not be. We risk taking the pre-eminence of search engines on the web for granted.
In looking for ‘Google killers’ commentators typically look to the horizon for other search engines. Yahoo was once in the frame. These days it’s Bing. In truth it seems highly unlikely that Google will be eclipsed by a newer, better Google.
Call it loyalty, call it laziness. Banks chase student customers simply because once people start with a bank they’re remarkably unlikely to switch to a competitor and thus though a student is a liability, the professional they may well become will be an asset.
Google commands similar loyalty. It is very good at what it does. Other engines haven’t gained a reputation for doing a significantly better job. With no compelling reason to switch brands most users will stay put.
However when Larry Page told an audience in September that the biggest threat to Google was “Google,” (on the basis that companies of Google’s size often collapse in on themselves) he may have missed the point.
The biggest threat to companies like Google may be less its direct competitors than those who have a stake in Google’s continued dominance, namely advertisers and the SEO industry.
Money, whether spent on advertising or on SEO, warps the results set. Even within the SEO industry there’s considerable concern that the behaviour of its least reputable practitioners may be killing the goose that lay the golden egg.
As Judith Lewis put it on the site Holistic Search, identifying ethics as a serious problem with SEO: “We need to stop acting like a bunch of cowboys and children who scream blue murder when someone tries to impose boundaries on us. We need to stop fearing regulations, qualifications and the like. We also need to start acting with integrity, be transparent, educate our clients and derive a legal torture method for those who being the name of SEO into disrepute.” Lewis did go on to explain that she wasn’t serious about the torture bit, bt that her exasperation, even anger, was real.
However blatantly illegal practices like hacking sites to place links aside, even ‘ethical’ SEO faces problems when search results are so distorted that they’re no longer trusted.
TKM threw out a question to the twittersphere; ‘how far down a series of search results would you search?’
The answers came back – only two or three pages before refining said one reply, five to ten pages if interested in a topic (more for images) came another.
If an average searcher views four to five pages of results (and if the question is sufficiently general that further refinement is difficult) and those pages are entirely formed of results that someone has paid to have put there then trust breaks down. The search engine has been compromised past the point of usefulness.
It leads to a constant struggle between the search engines and the SEOs; the search engines continually changing their algorithms to keep the results relevant, the SEOs constantly gaming the algorithms to get their clients’ results onto the front page.
Search engine users are expected to simply sit on the sidelines and take what they are given.
Some see the rise of Q&A services as a major threat to search engines, and in some respects they are – however in others they aren’t.
Q&A opens the door to the knowledge in people’s heads. It adds opinion and experience to simply information discovery. While search engines can find you ‘the best book on making jam’ by pointing you towards any number of sites where people have recorded their opinions, that still doesn’t help if the search results have been fixed by SEOs working for interested parties.
So what does Q&A offer? Firstly it offers a different kind of information sorting – one shaped by experience and knowledge rather than computation and money. It can also offer speed – if you don’t know what to look for it becomes quite hard to find in, however someone with years of experience could do in two minutes what it might take you hours to do and point you towards the result you need – assuming that person is online and answers your question. Thirdly, should search engine results become ever more compromised, it may offer trust. I say ‘may’ because one thing we can be absolutely sure of is that as Q&A takes an increasing share of search there will be companies that try to game that market just as they have search engine results. How they might do that will be the basis of a future article.
However does all this mean that Q&A will replace Google? Replace is almost certainly the wrong word. What may well happen is that collectively (for at present they are many) Q&A sites will start to take market share from Google and other search engines. And where Q&A leads others may follow. It’ll be a challenge for Google to incorporate all these other trends within its brand. To persuade the ‘Q&A community,’ ie those who answer questions, to come on board the Google mothership is quite an ‘ask’ in itself. Who knows how they’ll go about it should they choose to try.