In a recent news story Germany calls for Google to reveal its algorithms in the name of transparency, which prompted a response from the Google Europe blog. I support Google’s refusal to share their algorithm, as I don’t think a company should be forced to surrender intellectual property just because it happens to be better than its competitors. However, as I read their response one particular section stood out to me from a devil’s advocate perspective.

Eric Schmidt, the author of the Google Europe article, argued against the point that some people claim about Google being the gateway to the internet with the following points:

  • To get news, you’ll probably go direct to your favorite news site. It’s why newspapers like Bild, Le Monde and the Financial Times get most of their online traffic directly (less than 15% comes from Google). Or you might follow what other people are reading on Twitter.

  • To book a flight or buy a camera for your next holiday, you’re as likely go to a site like Expedia or Amazon as you are Google.

  • If you’re after reviews for restaurants or local services, chances are you’ll check out Yelp or TripAdvisor

  • And if you are on a mobile phone — which most people increasingly are — you’ll go straight to a dedicated app to check the sports scores, share your photos or look for recommendations. The most downloaded app in Europe is not Google, it is Facebook Messenger.

First point. True I suppose, but Google News does come installed on most Android phones clearly as an alternative to those very news sources. One could argue that if his point about those news sites being dominant is true it’s circumstantial; that Google creating a news app and putting it everywhere is an attempt to be the medium through which users obtain news. Their app not being dominant only means the attempt didn’t succeed, not that there wasn’t an attempt. With Google Books, News, Photos, etc. it’s clear they intend to be in virtually every space.

No comments on the second point.

Third point. I disagree. With Google’s new focus on local results and prioritizing map items with reviews before anything else, it’s made Google reviews more important than ever. People doing quick searches by PC or phone will undoubtedly see those first, and I’d wager that more people looking for a burger place do a general search before Yelp. I don’t know a lot of people personally that use third party directories. I know people do in general or the sites wouldn’t exist, but those sites being used more than Google? I’m not sure about that.

Fourth point. You’re using mobile apps that merely replace a direct website one would have visited before as an example of how mobile technology circumvents search engines. If I had an NFL website I routinely checked scores on, I’d go there directly anyway even without a phone app, so the app isn’t the reason I’m not doing a search. And the fact that Facebook Messenger is the #1 downloaded app in Europe is apples to oranges. Google is a search engine first and foremost, which is a function attached to a web browser. To say that a messaging app being downloaded more than something that doesn’t really need to be downloaded proves anything doesn’t make sense to me. And if they’re referring to Google Search and other such mini apps commonly found on Android phones, well, they’re commonly found on Android phones. No download would be necessary.

“We built Google for users, not websites.”

There are a variety of reasons Google is the dominant window into the internet. Many of them are probably good reasons. But for them to downplay their role in how people experience the internet is silly, especially since as I mentioned above they have a service for things like books, news, shopping, weather, etc. They’re clearly not content to merely be a search engine, and have a tool for so many actions as if they want to be everything to everyone.

You can’t be the predominate search engine, one of the top-used web browsers (Chrome), and a close tie for dominant smartphone (Android) — all things that affect the way people experience the web — and argue you’re not a big player in how people experience the internet.

I realize that in the context of Google’s response downplaying their role in the internet was convenient. After all, if you aren’t significant to how the internet works there’s less reason for someone else to want you to reveal your secrets. But let’s face facts. Google has continuously gained market share in every major arena they’ve put themselves in, and a lot of businesses have staked a big portion of their online marketing strategies on Google. You’re the big dog, Google. You can’t be huge and powerful when it suits you and not-so-significant when it doesn’t.

Categories: Musing and Science & Technology.

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