What a difference a slogan can make

8 February 2006

First, an apology. This is a post about Google. I'm sorry I couldn't help it. The guff about Google doing the same thing tonight as it does every night ("Wozzat Brain?" "Why Pinky, take over the world of course.") is getting to me. I have visions of blog posts rising up like a great tide and crushing every meme in their path. And this is another one. So, I'm sorry.

Like the Brain, Google has been trapped by its own catchphrase. Wannabe corporate management take note. Don't come up with a company slogan that is impossible to live up to but easy to pick holes in. It would explain why almost all corporate mission statements are in equal measure bland and impenetrable. In coming up with "Don't be evil", Google sought to set itself apart from all the other corporations that populate the IT (and most other) sectors. As a private company, the policy might have been possible. The trouble is Larry and Sergey made a promise they can't keep. As a public company, it's the shareholders that own the company, not the management. And, I'm afraid to say, shareholders tend to like evil - not too much, but just enough to keep that share price rising.

So, what we have now is the ugly spectacle of people saying: "Look, Google is just like all the others. They're going to take over the world just like Microsoft, and IBM, and err...the other companies like that. And they're not doing it nicely either."

Giving BMW.de the heave-ho from the listings for an outrageous piece of cloaking was just one of Google's apparent crimes. People are now worried about Google's "accountability" - that it is judge, jury and executioner for its own search listings. Bloggers, in particular, fear the power of Google and so fret about it in public. Curiously, Google is not the primary carrier of traffic to blogs, even though blogs come off bizarrely well in search rankings. Maybe Google will get even more aggressive about protecting the integrity of its search results and I think that concern is uppermost in bloggers' minds when they write about abuses of power at Google.

I think some of their concerns will turn into reality, but only so far as search engines need to deal with the imbalance between blogs and regular websites in the rankings. The situation was probably not helped by the purchase of Pyra Labs and the growth of Adsense on blogs - that will have encouraged Google to allow blogs to maintain higher rankings than they really deserve in search results. But sooner or later, the first pages are going to be stuffed with blog entries that force down pages that people are really going to be looking for when they use a search engine. Which is a bit of a problem when the medium benefiting is getting plenty of real traffic by other means, such as RSS, Technorati or direct links.

Next up in the Google crime department is the arrival of more ads to the search pages. I don't know if you've noticed but Google makes its money off advertising. And it needs more. And more. And more. I think this is the point where Google will begin to lose its shine among users. Google has been a good site to use because it is not cluttered. Advertising clutters pages. But it pays for them as well. Somewhere there is a middle ground that people will accept. But while it finds that middle ground, some users will drift away. And Google's attempts at search dominance take another knock.

I doubt that MSN, AskJeeves or Yahoo will knock Google off its perch. They broadly have the same business model and the same problems. I suspect the challenge will come from one of two directions (maybe both combined). One is improved AI from a new challegner. That is not to say that Google has not been doing a good job of adding its own. Over time, Google has added natural language processing features such as word stemming to improve searches. You no longer have to use the OR tag to find different forms of a word. I would imagine some level of context analysis to provide close synonyms is on the menu at some point. Let's face it, Google has a fantastic corpus for doing that kind of processing. It is way beyond any of the standard corpi that the independent researchers have been using for that kind of work. However, maybe one of the researchers has something a bit special up their sleeve and, like Larry and Sergey, a bit of encouragement or latitude from their supervisors.

The other direction is P2P. I have noticed Yacy, a P2P search engine that I have yet to get my head around turning up in the referrer logs. I remember the old days of the Interweb (that is, ten years ago), when agent-based searching was going to rule the world. Something like Yacy may be the next stepping stone to that. I have no idea whether it will be Yacy as I don't yet know enough about it. But I have a suspicion that the ultimate competitor to Google will be distributed. It's just another turn of the cycle - IBM - server-centric computing ; Microsoft - client-based computing; Google and Ajax - server-centric computing; SearchX - client-based computing.

And SearchX should have the slogan "will work for food" or something less ambitious than "don't be evil". Because Google's epitaph will probably be: "But I couldn't help it."