Do you remember the Internet before 1995? If you wanted to find something on the Internet, you needed either the URL or a link from some other site. Searching was difficult. The URL was king. Conventional wisdom was that if you did not own the “right” domain name (e.g., http://www.IBM.com), you were doomed in the new world of the Internet. Some companies changed their name because they couldn’t get their existing corporate name as a domain name.
In the mid 1990s I was working on a project putting computers, and the Internet, into a high school. I was observing one history class, held in one of the labs where every student had a computer connected to the Internet. They were exploring early 19th century farming techniques in the US. I noticed some young men in the back row who were extremely intent on what was displayed on one of the screens. So I wandered back. Turns out they had a game: who could first display a picture of a naked lady by only clicking – no keyboard activity allowed, and starting from the school’s home page or a link provided by the teacher. Turns out these lads were very good at it.
The very first tool to search the Internet was Archie (“Archive” without the “v”) introduced in 1990. Archie only searched through the file names of public anonymous FTP sites. FTP sites hold files, not web pages like a company’s web site. But, back then, that was where a lot of the information in the Internet was hidden. The first “real” search engine appeared in 1993, followed by a host of others. These worked by sending out web crawlers, scripts that literally roamed the Internet and kept track of what was where. All of these prioritized the results based on the number of times the word you were searching for appeared on a page.
In 1996, Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with a different scheme to determine the importance of a page for a given search: instead of looking only at the page, look at how many pages linked to that page. They called this product “BackRub.” They soon changed the name to Google (a misspelling of “googol,” a mathematical term for the number 1 followed by 100 zeros). They wanted to imply that their search engine would provides large quantities of information for the users of the Internet.
I used to wade through the first three to five pages of results to find what I wanted, but Google has impressively improved its relevance analysis and I rarely go beyond the first page anymore. Thus placement in the search results is now critical. Not surprisingly, there has been a steady war going on between Google and web designers. Web designers use a process called “search engine optimization” to improve the visibility of a web page to get it on that valuable first page of search results. Google works just as hard to make it very hard to scam the process. Usually, Google wins out and the search results are reasonably “fair” and, more importantly, very useful.
Of course, you can also bribe Google (although they call them “ads” and “sponsored links”). Send Google money and your results show up on the first page. So far, Google has been very careful to make it obvious that an entry is a sponsored link or an ad by putting them off to the right side or using a different background color with an explicit “Ad” tag.
Remember my earlier comment about the URL is king? Not anymore. If you want information about a product or company, you can just enter the name in a Google search. You will almost instantly get links to the company’s website, some anti-company sites, product information, and competitors.
But searching is just one piece of Google. In addition to searching, Google offers free email, free calendar, free web hosting, free data storage in the Cloud, free access to Microsoft Office-like applications, free collaboration facilities, free mapping services, free news, and free language translation. They are also a competitor to Amazon and PayPal.
But wait, there’s more. Google launched Google+ in June as direct competition to Facebook, supporting instant messaging and a host of additional social networking features. This includes the ability to see what other Google+ users are interested in, and the ability to recommend sites or web pages for your friends. Google+ was just opened to the general public in September, and reached 40 million users in October. A Bloomberg article estimates that 22% of US adults will join within one year.
Google does not want you to interface directly with the Internet, but to interface only to the Googlenet (or whatever they may decide to call it). Do everything through google.com: search and surf the net, social networking, purchases, research, create and manage documents, email, instant messaging, run your business, play, ….
Today, Google uses your recent searches and web site visits to impact the priority of search results so you are more likely to get links on the first page which match the kinds of things you have looked at or for in the recent past. Tomorrow Google will be able to further filter search results through the likes and searches of your friends.
Google has also demonstrated the willingness to support government censorship (e.g., China; and the way the current government is going soon here in the US). China has shown that a government does not have to shut down undesirable web sites, simply tell Google to not present them in search results. If you know where they are (back to the URL again), you can still find them. It is just much harder.
A large portion of the Internet is already virtually invisible due to language barriers. Soon it can be censored based on who you know and where you have been. We run the serious risk of becoming like the US Congress: highly polarized and only interested in ideas from people who think like we do. Any other ideas are perceived as clearly ridiculous or at least seriously misguided, and to be ignored.
Google has an estimated one million servers in data centers around the world processing over one billion search requests each day. It costs a lot of money to run these servers and data centers. How can Google afford to do that? They must be getting money somewhere. They are, and a lot of money. Revenue for the third quarter of 2011 was US$9.7 billion, with net profit of US$2.7 billion. These numbers are both up by more than a 25% year over year. They have obviously figured out how to build a business that survives economic uncertainty better than most companies.
Where does this money comes form? Much of it comes from those ads and sponsored links, the Google AdWords program. The more times we click on one of these sponsored links, the more money Google makes. What if they could increase the odds of you clicking on one of those sponsored links? Wow, if only they knew what ads you had clicked on in the past, what web sites you visited, and what people who thought like you clicked on. Oh, wait, they do.
The last word:
Can this be fixed? I’m not sure anything is really broken, and we probably can’t stop this trend. If you are looking for a product for your home, a new book, a restaurant, or almost anything this probably helps you. If you are looking for facts to make a business decision, it is potentially a problem.
What can you do? Mostly, just be aware. I have no friends so they can’t influence me (OK, I do, but I don’t have a presence on Facebook or Google+). I also make sure I’m not signed into Google when I do searches where I welcome opposing views.
This trend is not unique to Google. Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and others are also trying to be your only portal to the Internet and for the same reasons. Apple is also well known for its censorship on iTunes and iPod/iPad applications, adding another level of filtering that you might not agree with.
These companies, while not necessarily evil, will restrict what you see. The official Google mission statement is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The unofficial Google mission statement is “Don’t be evil.” There is potential real danger in meeting both of those statements.
Keep your sense of humor.