Google’s Ever-creeping Tide

While the world is shocked – shocked I tells ya! – to learn that not all the countless people who have been datamining Facebook for the last decade have been using it for good, Google have once more turned their screw on ownership of the ‘open, free internet.’

As is usual with Google, it is presented as a benign, friendly move designed to help others. Nothing Google ever does is anything else, right? This time it is the “Google News Initiative.

It begins as all these things do, with a reminder of just how positive Google has been for the news industry:

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AMP (which I loathed on instinct) was always a move to force proprietary markup onto publishers for Google’s own purpose. In fact, it purposefully stripped the methods used by publishers to generate revenue or gain insight – ostensibly for ‘speed’, but really just to hack competitor networks off at the knees. It didn’t take long, in fact, for Google just to start hosting AMP pages altogether – making a trip to the publisher’s own website completely redundant.

YouTube? Well, we don’t need to delve too deeply into the horror that is YouTube, but even just taken as a news delivery platform it ties organisations to a Google property, and thus at the mercy of Google policies and processes and the secret methods they deploy in their decision about what to surface and what to bury.

Having forced people onto platforms it owns, Google is now looking to control the purchase funnel.

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Again: to engage with this ecosphere is to put yourself at the mercy of Google’s terms and conditions. There can be little doubt that “Subscribe with Google” buttons will start to appear alongside titles which join the service, and thus they will get a little extra juice in the rankings, probably improved clickthrough rates (weird that anything with an extra visual clue would do better than plain text huh? See: AdWords’ ever-increasing feature set).

So when you’re effectively publishing on Google rather than the free internet, what is the next logical step? To capture the data, and provide it to you as a ‘service’ without ever mentioning that all this data must necessarily flow through Google’s own infrastructure and therefore give them industry-wide insight that they can use to whatever means they see fit (better monetising their display network, selling insight directly, or gaining intelligence to make acquisition decisions).

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So there you are: Google’s offer is to host your content. To monetise it for you. To give you loads of tools that make you feel that you’re in control. And all they ask in return is your soul.

Meanwhile in the background, Google relentlessly lobbies Governments and supranational bodies for its own commercial benefit (which, of course, it is completely free to do) while getting ever closer to the seats of power.

In that environment, with all the control that Google has, and with Google’s own interests at stake, do you really believe that they would not interfere with the free flow of information if it conflicted with their own aims? Given the relentless nature with which they have pursued the destruction of business models they happen not to like (link building, affiliate sites, competing products, browers etc etc etc) then I wouldn’t count on it, personally.

Is it really 7 years since I wrote this?

20 years ago, Bill Gates thought the world wide web was too open and free and beyond his control. That his vision of an alternative, closed-system “Microsoft web” failed still rises alternative chuckles at his naivety and contempt for his anti-competitive ideas. And yet here we are, supine to Google as they blithely buy the internet – blinded by the whole “do no evil” thing, which is about as deep as the copywriting on Innocent smoothies, when you think about it.

7 years might have passed, but there is still no answer to the riddle of what to do with Google, and how the world responds to the increasing threat it poses to the internet as envisaged.

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What Will Amazon’s Search Engine Look Like?

They’d be mad not to build a search engine, right?

I’m going to start with the assumption that I’m horribly late to the realisation that Amazon’s voice-powered Alexa device took its name from Alexa.com – which Amazon bought in for $$$$ in 1999 (I don’t really follow industry news, or even read blogs much these days. I’m also a little bit dim. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa).

But, while chatting to a colleague, my synapses pinged as the realisation hit me (likewise probably 188 years after everyone else) just how fully Amazon are going after Google.

Alexa.com had a slightly jokey place in the firmament of internet marketing prior to its retreat behind a paywall a couple of years back. If you’ve ever worked at an SEO agency you probably had a call from an anxious business owner because she looked at her “traffic ranking” on Alexa and it had gone down.

Now Alexa.com’s methodology was always a little bit opaque. It was a kind of freebie version of Hitwise, which gave you some degree of insight into relative traffic numbers and back links based on various proxy sources of data (if you didn’t have an Alexa toolbar at one point did you ever internet marketing, bro?) but it was never really considered to be a serious tool. Now that it’s a paid service, I assume that it’s much sharper and I’m sure plenty of people would speak in its defence today.

But, relative metric uncertainty or not, Alexa has a loooooot of data from a loooong period of time. In fact, its launch was almost contemporaneous with that of Google. That’s pretty much two decades of continual data collection across pretty much all of the internet – which is a hell of an index with which to start. In fact, if this data was as rubbish as we all used to say back in the day, they certainly wouldn’t be pitching it as an SEO and link research tool at $150 per month (admittedly a lot cheaper than ahrefs etc).

But that’s by the by. The point of Alexa’s data hoard and spidering capability isn’t really the minimal gain to be had from selling SEO audits for agencies to white label at a profit, but that it has a pretty reasonable map of the internet onto which to project a search engine.

And what is it hawking every time you turn on your telly, pass a billboard, or order inflatable sex dolls from Amazon? If you said “Alexa” then award yourself 5 points and proceed to page 2 of your workbooks.

Yes, with much forehead-slapping, I now see the natural synergy of the two. Google are frantically trying to convince you that voice is the future of search, and whether you or I believe this is moot: Amazon are fighting for that same bit of turf.

Now, if you’re buying an every day sort of product online – particularly bits and pieces like charging leads… desk tidies… sellotape… a DVD… I guess your journey is either confined to Google, Amazon or eBay – with the latter two holding an advantage, in that you can search specifically on price or delivery options etc.

Google’s preferred vision of an exploratory conversation with their device is, in my opinion, a foolish pipe dream in the short to medium term at least. The variables in any purchase decision are so potentially vast as to render the technological leaps necessary almost insurmountable as things stand. But simple product ordering? Well if Amazon managed to ship a load of weird buttons you could stick on the side of your toilet to order bog roll in an emergency, then that’s something you could apply to voice search tomorrow (“Alexa order me 12… no, 24, bog rolls.”)

This gives Alexa a greater immediate utility than Google’s sort-of crappy what’s-the-weather-like-outside-now feature set, and thus I reckon Amazon calculate they can shift more devices to people in the wild and get them using them more frequently than Google can.

Again – I’m extemporising here (not even looking up the figures) so this could all be twaddle, but if Amazon succeed in getting Alexa (the device) into a lot of homes and in relatively frequent use, then this is where Alexa (the dotcom) suddenly becomes relevant – because now you can deploy a true search engine with real time over-the-air updates to a bunch of people who are already accustomed to using your core product as part of their daily lives.

And there, of course, is where Amazon face a different order of question – for as yet the technology to get meaningful answers through voice is a mixed bag. In fact, ‘voice search’ is still really more akin to ‘transcribing spoken search queries and dropping them into the search box’ than anything else IMO.

Is this really their play? And even if it is would it actually pay off? Well I don’t know: I am bit a simple lad of Yorkshire birth, with a suitably simple view of what the titans of the internet ecosphere might be planning. But there we are: some random thoughts pumped into the idiot box on a Friday so I can still claim to be a blogger.