Despite its dominance, Google doesn’t fit the definition of a monopoly. Still, the Search giant’s growing disconnect from society could lead to serious missteps and, over time, to a weakened position.
In last week’s column, I opined about the Open Internet Project’s anti-trust lawsuit against Google. Reactions showed divided views of the search engine’s position. Granted, Google is an extremely aggressive company, obsessed with growth, scalability, optimization — and also with its own vulnerability.
But is it really a monopoly in the traditional and historical sense? Probably not. Here is why, in four points:
1. The consent to dependency. It is always dangerous to be too dependent from a supplier one doesn’t control. This is the case in the (illegal) drug business. Price and supply will fluctuate at the whim of unpredictable people.This is what happens to those who build highly Google-dependent businesses such as e-commerce sites and content-farms that provide large quantities of cheap fodder in order to milk ad revenue from Google search-friendly tactics.
In the end, everything is a matter of trust (“Jaws”, courtesy of Louis Goldman)
Many news media brands have sealed their own fate by structuring their output so that 30% to 40% of their traffic is at the mercy of Google algorithms. I’m fascinated by the breadth and depth of the consensual ecosystem that is now built around the Google traffic pipeline: consulting firms helping media rank better in Google Search and Google News; software that rephrases headlines to make it more likely they’ll hit the top ranks; A/B testing on-the-fly that shows what the search engine might like best, etc.
For the media industry, what should have remained a marginal audience extension has turned into a vital stream of page views and revenue. I personally think this is dangerous in two ways. One, we replace the notion of relevance, reader interest, with a purely quantitative/algorithmic construct (listicles vs depth, BuzzFeed vs. ProPublica for instance). Such mechanistic practices further fuel the value deflation of original content. Two, the eagerness to please the algorithms distracts newsrooms, journalists, editors, from their job to find, develop, build intelligent news packages that will lift brand perception and elevate the reader’s mind (BuzzFeed and plenty of others are the quintessence of cheapening alienation.)
2. Choice and Competition. In 1904, Standard Oil Inc. controlled 91% of American oil production and refining, and 85% of sales. This practically inescapable monopoly was able to dictate prices and supply structure. As for Google, it indeed controls 90% of the search market in some regions (Europe especially, where fragmented markets, poor access to capital and other cultural factors prevented the emergence of tech giants.) Google combines its services (search, mail, maps, Android) to produce one of the most potent data gathering systems ever created. Note the emphasis: Google (a) didn’t invent the high tech data X-ray business, nor (b) is it the largest entity to collect gargantuan amounts of data. Read this Quartz article The nine companies that know more about you than Google or Facebook and see how corporations such as Acxiom, Corelogic, Datalogix, eBureau, ID Analytics, Intelius, PeekYou, Rapleaf, and Recorded Future collect data on a gigantic scale, including court and public records information, or your gambling habit. Did they make you sign a consent form?
You want to escape Google? Use Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo or Exalead for your web search, or go here to find a list of 40 alternatives. You don’t want your site to be indexed by Google? Insert a robot exclusion line in your html pages, and the hated crawler won’t see your content. You’re sick of Adwords in your pages or in Gmail? Use AdBlock plug-in, it’s even available for the Google Chrome browser. The same applies for storing your data, getting a digital map or web mail services. You’re “creeped out” by Google’s ability to reconstruct every move around your block or from one city to another by injecting data from your Android phone into Maps? You’re right! Google Maps Location History is frightening; to kill it, you can turn off your device’s geolocation, or use Windows Phone or an iPhone (be simply aware that they do exactly the same thing, but they don’t advertise it). Unlike public utilities, you can escape Google. Simply, its services are more convenient, perform well and… are better integrated, which gets us to our third point:
3. Transparent strategy. To Google’s credit, for the most part, its strategy is pretty transparent. What some see as a monopoly in the making is a deliberate — and open — strategy of systematic (and systemic) integration. Here is the chart I made few months ago:
We could include several recent additions such as trip habits from Uber (don’t like it? Try Lyft, or better, a good old Parisian taxi – they don’t even take credit cards); or temperature setting patterns soon coming from Nest thermostats (if you chose to trust Tony Fadell’s promises)… Even Google X, the company’s moonshot factory (story in Fast Company) offers glimpses of Google’s future reach with the development of autonomous cars, projects to bring the internet to remote countries using balloons (see Project Loon) or other airborne platforms.
4. Innovation. Monopolies are known to kill innovation. That was the case with oil companies, cartels of car makers that discouraged alternate transportation systems, or even Microsoft which made our life miserable thanks to a pipeline of operating systems without real competition. By contrast, Google is obsessed with innovative projects seen as an absolute necessity for its survival. Some are good, other are bad, or remain in beta for years.
However, Google is already sowing the seeds of its own erosion. This company is terribly disconnected from the real world. This shows everywhere, from the minutest details of its employees daily life pampered in a overabundance of comfort and amenities that keep them inside a cosy bubble, to its own vital statistics (published by the company itself). Google is mostly white (61%), male (70%), recruits in major universities (in that order: Stanford, UC Berkeley, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, UCLA), with very little “blood” from fields other than scientific or technical. For a company that says it wants to connect its business to a myriad of sectors, such cultural blinders are a serious issue. Combined to the certainty of its own excellence, the result is a distorted view of the world in which the distinction between right and wrong can easily blur. A business practice internally considered virtuous because it supports the perpetuation of the company’s evangelistic vision of a better world can be seen as predatory in the “real” world. Hence a growing rift between the tech giant and its partners and customers, and the nations who host them.