At SES, while I was on a panel about universal search, Comscore today released some really interesting data. We spent the rest of the hour debating the meaning of if all. It was like getting muffins straight from the oven – no one has seen it, not even the product manager of universal search at Google, whose service the data analyzed.
You can find in the moment coverage of the news here. What I found fascinating about this – not just the data, but the chance to really think about universal search – is the age-old conflict that Google faces between being a pure navigation service – “We get you where you want to go” – and being a media company – “We get you to our properties, where we make more money if you stay.”
This conflict is very real, urgent, and present.
To pretend otherwise is to ignore the reality of YouTube, Google News, Google Maps, Google Local, the onebox interface, Knol, and everything else Google owns that represent the chance for them to make money the way every other media company in the world makes money – by competing for your attention and monetizing it with advertising. (I’ve been on about this for some time).
Google’s brand promise – to be neutral, to be above monetary interest – is in conflict with, well, the rest of Google’s brand promise, to be a superstar stock, to grow faster than any company in the history of the world. And all of that is in conflict with …. Google’s brand promise, to get consumers to the best answer, fastest, regardless of who owns the content. Because…sometimes, that content is now owned by Google. But how to prove that those neutral algorithms picked Google above all else, while avoiding the appearance of conflict?
Universal search interfaces break the ten year stranglehold of ten blue links and surface new media types – images, data sets (like stocks, weather, etc.), videos. In doing so, they also break the conformity of SEO – search engine optimization – and lay bare Google’s own editorial choices. Why when you search for stocks does Google Finance come first? Let’s be honest here. It’s not because some neutral algorithm chose Google Finance. It’s because Google owns that data. Google’s representative admitted as much on our panel today.
And, given that, can one reasonably ask why, according to Comscore’s data, the preponderance of results that come up in Google’s universal search are YouTube? Might it be because they are they best results? Sure. Might it also be because Google owns YouTube, which is madly trying to monetize the second, third, and fourth click with new models that it hopes to heck are going to pay off?
Sure. Yahoo’s been doing this for a long time. But then, Yahoo’s a media company, init? As I wrote in 2005:
“With its shortcuts Yahoo makes no pretense of objectivity—it
is clearly steering searchers toward its own editorial services, which
it believes can satisfy the intent of the search. In effect, Yahoo is
saying “You’re looking for stuff on Usher? We got stuff on Usher,
and it’s good stuff. Try what we suggest; we think it’ll be worth
Apparent in that sentiment lies a key distinction between
Google and Yahoo. Yahoo is far more willing to have overt editorial
and commercial agendas, and to let humans intervene in search results
so as to create media that supports those agendas. Google, on
the other hand, is repelled by the idea of becoming a content- or editorially
driven company. While both companies can ostensibly lay
claim to the mission of “organizing the world’s information and
making it accessible” (though only Google actually claims that line
as its mission), they approach the task with vastly different stances.” (The Search, page 239-240)
At least, that used to be the difference between Google and Yahoo.
Google is in new and uncharted ground here. And mark my words, it won’t be easy for the company to navigate. But then, we knew that, right?