The days of innocence have long gone. Image: Maxel.
The growth of the internet created a central nervous system which ultimately linked pretty well every computer and every data base to the world. It brought three problems.
1. How can you look at it?
2. How can you find anything?
3. How can you stop everybody pinching your stuff?
The Graphical User Interface solved 1. Computers and systems were walled off and protected by virus protectors to deal with 3. But 2 has a more interesting story for civilians.
At first search engines like Alta Vista offered human driven searches in which real people went on the hunt for information. As the system grew, that became ridiculous. Then we had the miracle of Google, the search engine which sent its spiders out all over the system, constantly indexing until we could find the most extraordinary things in the blink of an eye. The education of your GP? Train timetables in Sweden? Academic papers in Botswana? Done before you finish the thought.
Google began as a research project at Stanford University by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, which they turned into a private company in 1998. They had some angel investors, grew to include venture capitalists, and soon tried to sell the company for US$1m – but could not find any takers.
For us Google started off as this mysterious benefactor from the future, promising a world of connection and generosity, where decency would flourish. Its slogan was ‘Don’t be evil’ and it committed itself to ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’.
In 2004 it held an Initial Public Offering, which raised US$1.67b. A lot of smarties could see that the public interest function of building the world’s filing cabinet could be worth a lot of money.
At that moment, Google changed the screen and publishing world forever. In 2005, the Washington Post reported Google’s third quarter profit.
Google Inc. yesterday reported a 700 percent increase in third-quarter profit, as a growing number of Fortune 500 companies and other firms around the world shifted their ad spending from newspapers, magazines and television to the Internet…
..”The engine driving our economic prosperity is this big sea change transitioning off-line [advertising] dollars to online,” Google Vice President Jonathan J. Rosenberg said in a conference call with analysts. “You will see continued growth.”
..While Google reported third-quarter revenue of $1.6 billion and profit of $381.2 million, the New York Times Co. reported revenue of $791 million and profit of $23.1 million.
Those mild ads on the side of the page were triggered by an online bidding system. Search Engine Optimisation became a thing. Crooks dumped huge amounts of fake stuff online to harvest clicks and game the system. To Google, the garbage made people eager to buy their place at the head of the queue, and the ads moved centre page…
Now Google’s net worth is said to be worth US$279.3b, manages 3.5b searches per day, while parent company Alphabet made US$32b in the last quarter, and grew at the rate of 26%. Even so, Microsoft is worth more than Google.
Of course Google has been diversifying like crazy and its income come from sources like Youtube and Android as well, so the indexing and search business is not the only source of the above figures. But it seems that Google earns 90% of its revenue from advertising. No wonder everyone else is feeling the pain.
All this is by way of preamble. I wanted to showcase a single paragraph from Shelly Palmer, which describes the current state of the service really well.
P.S. For those who are wondering about Google search results. Google is not a search engine, it is a highly specialized direct response advertising engine purpose-built to translate the value of “intention” into wealth for Google (Alphabet) shareholders. It is optimized to put the right ad in front of the right person at the right time. In other words, it is “rigged” to optimize revenue – all other considerations are secondary.
Now you know why it looks like such a shambles. The received wisdom is that people expect to get their results on the first page and no-one goes past page three. The system works much better if we want specialised information using search terms with very few hits.
However, there are other forces at work. Most keepers of archives now see themselves as owners of data, and have brought the dread word monetise into their weekly meetings. Fair enough, because the material costs money to create and maintain. We value our work like this as well; it is one benefit of being a subscriber.
Ten years ago, Google worked much better for journalists. We could find both the background to stories and the various ways it was seen from different points of view. Now we need a fair swag of subscriptions to do this and our readers can’t access the articles we use.
There is one fine thing about this mess. At first, Google seemed to abolish the skills of research as anyone could punch in a term and cut and paste. These days the paths to important sources have become more intricate and we have gone back to a super powered version of the traditional skills. If you want something, where is it likely to be? What the paths inside? What classes of people does it want to let in? What about Facebook and Twitter?
A little ingenuity helps. Just two examples. Searching via Google Images reveals a different set of sites, without some of the garbage. And the abstracts of research papers provide a list of authors which can be googled in turn, so you radiate out to the whole field.
There is still an enormous amount on Google; it is just that the universal, comprehensive and benign dream is dead.
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