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Despite being a free and open platform for expression, commerce and communication, Internet monopolies still exist. That probably says more about us as netizens than it does about the companies in control.
Google is so ubiquitous it has reached verb status, and it’s what most of us turn to when looking for something online. Monopolies are bad, and Google’s is directly affecting the way your favourite online content is produced.
They might be good at search, but we’ve only got ourselves to blame for the status quo.
This isn’t an article about ditching your Android phone, nor am I going to implore you to switch your email provider or take out an Office 365 subscription. Keep chatting on Hangouts, adding new events to your Google Calendar and hold on to that new Chromebook you just bought. This relates solely to Google Search, arguably the company’s flagship “product” and one of the Internet’s greatest success stories.
We all know the story by now: created in a garage by two PhD students at Stanford, Google shot to success for its implementation of boolean operators and a superior search algorithm that smoked every search engine of the time. It only took a few years of common usage before the term “to Google something” essentially meant to “search the Internet” despite the company’s best efforts otherwise.
The present day Google wields a massive amount of power, much of it down to the huge volume of search requests it processes. According to NetMarketShare, Google deals with 69.8% of global search requests, with its closest rival being Baidu purely on the basis that it caters for the swelling Chinese online population. In the US alone Google snapped up 67.6% of May 2014’s queries according to comScore’s latest figures.
We created, adopted and embraced the Internet as a platform for freedom of speech and expression – so why do we all use the same search engine?
There’s nothing wrong with a company being good at something and when Google first brought light to the darkest corners of the web, the Internet sorely needed good search engines. As businesses, blogs, shopping sites and more embraced the online world, they needed a way of being found. This created a culture of dependence on the search engines, and with it the rather dull practice of search engine optimization (SEO).
For the early Internet, Google was just too good. To this day in the US the search engine deals with nine billion more searches per calendar month than Microsoft does with Bing. With so many websites dependent on your service, this can really throw a spanner in the works when you start making changes to the way those 12.5 billion monthly searches are performed.
Which beggars the question – how do you determine whether one link is better than another, using an algorithm? This is a difficult job for any search engine provider, but when the vast majority of search queries are funneled through the same tube, the actions of one company are felt so much more strongly. Nobody expects Google to rank its search results by hand, but it’s hard not to question the accuracy of a computer algorithm that can bury your content and any advertising revenue you had overnight.
The most recent of these changes concerns Panda, a filter Google introduced in 2011 to help remove websites with low quality content from search results. The May 2014 update was felt around the Web on sites like ours, though the biggest losers were hit hard and sites like eBay and Digital Trends had their Google traffic cut by 70% and 50% respectively. Conversely some of the winners saw huge swings in their favour, I’m sure quotations database ThinkExist and celebrity dating blog WhosDatedWho were overjoyed with their 250% traffic boosts.
The ball is always in Google’s court – they control the search game. This breeds a culture of tailoring content to what Google wants, with the problem being that nobody really knows what this is. Most “SEO experts” will tell you they know how to get your site ranking highly, but really they have no greater insight into what goes on behind the scenes than you do.
We’re not bitter, that’s not the point of this article. An over-reliance on search traffic is a dangerous game for any website or publication to play, and MakeUseOf is all too familiar with the benefits of loyal readers. We live in a world of constant change, so the reshuffling of content is something we’re going to have to get used to. That doesn’t change the fact that one player in the online world has a huge impact on the way content is being produced now and into the future.
Any self-respecting publication with bills to pay and an interest in ranking highly in Google’s results is currently tailoring their content to what Google wants. That’s why monopolies are bad: one company holds the deciding vote, regardless of whether they want it or not. We can’t blame Google for wanting to tidy up results, there are a lot of low quality content producers using SEO to drive advertising traffic.
What Can We Do?
Switching away from Google won’t fix much of the Web’s reliance on search engines, nor will it suddenly mean that algorithms used to find poor quality content will suddenly improve either. That said, if we were to use more varied search providers, the traffic wouldn’t be quite so concentrated in Google’s favour. When Google makes changes, the effects wouldn’t be quite so severe, and more importantly there would be less need to tailor content to Google’s algorithms.
By spreading ourselves more thinly and using alternatives to Google Search, we would start to more evenly distribute the responsibility of ranking the Web’s content. Without a monopoly, no one company would be able to dictate what constitutes as “good” Web content. You might even discover that some of the alternatives to Google are doing some pretty innovative things after all.
So what should you use instead? Bing, Yahoo, Ask and AOL are next in line according to popularity, but others do exist. One of our very favourites here at MakeUseOf is DuckDuckGo, a search engine with that uses a few clever features to set its apart from Google. You should also consider these semantic search engines or one these tailor-made crawlers.
Even if you find yourself somehow drawn to Google Search out of sheer habit, consider changing the default search engine on just a few of your devices. You might break the habit before long, or discover that you really love Bing (unlikely, I know).
Don’t Hate Google
The people who work for Google love the Web as much as you do, but in this instance they’re the “bad guys” due to their early victory in the search game. You should keep your Android phone, continue to organise your life with Google Calendar and wear that Gmail address proudly – but consider the wider implications of your search habits.
With analysts predicting that Facebook will lose 80% of its users by 2017, distributing Google’s search power a little more evenly doesn’t seem like quite such an impossible trend to embrace.
Which search engine will you be switching to? Maybe you’re not convinced, and an Internet ranked by Google doesn’t seem so bad. Turn it up in the comments, below.
Image Credits: Don’t go! (ucumari / Valerie)