Google’s “Evil” Pivot
Take a moment to consider Google in early 2000, at the beginning of their ascendancy to becoming a household term, before they had gotten into the online advertising business. At that point, if they had made it standard practice for them to
munge up enhance their search results with some of the other products they offered, no one would have batted an eyelash about the “evilness” of it. It’s a company making a business decision; they’re using one tool to promote another, and that’s a completely standard business move. Product integration, as everyone knows, is usually a “good thing”.
The obvious difference here is that integration was very clearly not a “good thing” for Google, which is why they didn’t do it. Search for Google was something beyond pristine; it was sacrosanct. “Don’t be evil”, for years, meant that Google Search would first and foremost be the most effective search tool available on the web. The prevailing attitude at that time was, “If it could bring in profits, all the better, but for goodness sake, don’t mess with the quality of our search results.” Even the lure of higher profits took a backseat to tampering with search results; that’s why they didn’t mix search with all their other products, even though there was plenty of opportunity to do so. Imagine if, when searching for some appliance, they only showed those vendors who supported Google Checkout. That integration would have meant more business, but a worse search experience. At the start, Google wasn’t willing to do that.
Then Adsense came along. Sure, Adsense didn’t “affect” search results — they’re right there in front of you! — but suddenly your search results aren’t just “search results”, they’re “search results, with something very likely relevant, but not necessarily most relevant, as the very first link”. Was this a bad business move? Of course not; ads now account for the vast majority of their revenue. However, this was the beginning of a shift away from pure search.
And then Facebook happened.
Maybe it was the ads; the money advertisers will spend on search ads, where relatively little is known about the user, is peanuts compared to what they’ll spend when you know the user’s name, age, gender, location, friends, family, education, proportion of time spent online, pasttimes, etc. Maybe it was the user interaction; people search for a second and then click away from Google, whereas they’ll sit on Facebook for embarrassingly long periods of time. Maybe it was simply that they felt that social networking was too big to ignore. Whatever it was, Google switched from being a search company which also offers email and spreadsheets and analytics and other stuff, to being a social networking company which also does search and other stuff.
Is this a good idea? That depends on your definition of “good idea”, and how you parametrize it. However, there’s no denying that when a huge pivot like this happens, the original product will almost certainly suffer. I guess Google’s decided they’re fine that, ten years from now, the colloquial term for searching may be “just Bing it”.