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Is Google having a panic attack…?

Google is a fine company – let’s get that straight at the beginning. They provide you and me with plenty of useful services. Even if you only use their search engine, can you imagine life without? We all depend on Google to a smaller or larger extent. And as a business, they are not doing badly – billions of dollars cash in the bank and massive revenues based on an average transaction price of less than a dollar. Not bad eh?

Is Google having a panic attack thanks to Facebook?However, Google has a problem – and it knows it. Traditional search engines have a limited life; new ways of searching which are more accurate, more relevant and more speedy are going to be required as the volume of Internet data grows at exponential rates. If Google does not adapt its search engine to the new online world, we will give up using it – and with it the company’s revenues will decline.

The good folk at Google are not daft – gosh they have more PhDs per square foot than Oxford I reckon…! For a number of years they have adapted their search engine, improved it and spent hours in their laboratories looking at “semantic search” – search which knows exactly what you mean when you type.

Consider the kind of problems Google has to face. Just type in the word “apple” to Google. Seems simple. But Google has to work out do you mean Apple, as in the company, apple, as in the fruit, or Apple as in the girl’s name. Just which one did you really mean? At the moment, all Google can really do is take an educated guess. For most searches it does a reasonable job – but here’s the problem: 50% of all the search terms that are typed into the Google search box each month have NEVER been typed in before in the 13 year history of the company. Each month, half of what it sees is brand new and that means it has an ever increasingly difficult task of making sure it can deliver. Semantic search will help – but Google now faces another problem: human search.

If I simply ask you “Apple?” you will probably say “no thanks, I’ve eaten” or “I prefer oranges”. But if I look at you strangely you might then answer, “oh sorry, you want an apple, I’ll get one from the fridge for you”. And then, even if I say no more, but set-aside the apple you have given me, you’ll say “don’t you like Royal Gala apples then?” and even if I continue with my silence, you’ll say “Oh I get it, you want to look at my new Apple computer”. At which point you flash me your iPad and I’m still not impressed and you say “Oh, where did I get it?”, I smile, and you say “PC World have them back in stock now”.

One word and nothing else and you can get to the exact thing I want. One word into Google and it fails, unless it can make a really, really good guess (and to be fair it does that quite a lot). But humans are better at working out what other people want to know than mathematical algorithms. If I ask you “where is the best restaurant near here where I can take my wife for a slap up birthday meal” you can tell me, in an instant. Google can’t. It suggests I might be interested in a website on “television tropes and idioms“. Wrong!

And guess what – people are discovering in their millions that Twitter and Facebook are fantastic search engines – because you can ask questions that only human beings can answer and to which you get accurate, rapid answers. Google, of course, is aware of this and realises that as people gradually discover that humans are better at providing answers than search engines, they could lose traffic themselves over the coming years – and that will reduce their income.

Enter Google Plus, the FIFTH attempt at social networking produced by Google. Former efforts, such as Jaiku, Buzz and Wave have already been consigned to the Internet trash can. Only Orkut remains, and then almost only in Brazil. And Google Plus is not as successful as we think. True it is the fastest growing social network ever produced – but also the fastest falling. Traffic peaked and dropped. The only significant advantage it had over Facebook was “circles” and within days the engineers at Facebook added “Friends Lists” which provides exactly the same function.

In the meantime, Google is clearly concerned about the way we are searching using social networks and the way that the advertising industry is predicting where they will spend their cash in the coming years (70% of it on Facebook). So, Google appears to be pulling out the stops to make us aware of Google Plus and want to use it. But their attempts seem more driven by panic than strategy.

For instance, Google news is widely regarded as an objective compilation of news from world journalism. It is a brilliant system. Until now. Google has now added photographic “bylines” to the articles it lists. But those bylines are only produced if the writer is a member of Google Plus. In other words, Google has now added subjectivity to its otherwise brilliant product. The message it is sending out is that the writers of some articles are better than others BECAUSE they are on Google Plus. Not necessarily true, of course.

Meanwhile, over in the search team, Google is making search more “secure” – but actually what it is doing is preventing website owners from seeing the keywords that their visitors typed in to get to them. This is crucial information to online businesses, but Google is “in the interests of privacy” preventing website owners from retrieving such data – oh, unless they happen to be using Google advertising products and then it is OK. Call me a cynic, but the much needed move for greater privacy appears to be mere window dressing for a strictly commercial move to get people to spend more money with the company.

At the same time as all this is going on, the team at Gmail have upset hoards of people with an iPhone app that was so derided they took it down from the web TWO HOURS after launching it. And there are loads of blog posts and comments all complaining about the “new look” of Gmail, which appears to make using it really great if you happen to be a PhD engineer in San Francisco.

On top of this the company now wants to charge businesses for using Google Maps and it recently closed down the Google News Timeline, which was an essential tool for many academics the world over. Plus if you paid for Google Apps, you couldn’t have a Google Profile attached to it – yet Google ranks profiles highly for an individual’s name. Indeed, when Google was in love with its Buzz product (now dead) it didn’t let its paying customers have access to it via Google Apps. And to cap it all, the re-configuration of Google Reader has its fans up in arms because it simply cannot use it the way they always have.

Oh and one more thing – if you used the Advanced Search on Google you may well have used the plus sign (+) to find words together. That has been part of the advanced search facility of Google for over a decade. They quietly switched it off last week, because they clearly are keen on preserving the plus sign as an indicator for Google +; never mind the fact that millions of searches now won’t work.

It all looks like Google is in a bit of a state. They are annoying people left, right and centre – which is not a good idea when many of those people are finding human search on social media is producing more accurate more rapid results for many categories of questions. Indeed, you only need to ask a question in Quora or LinkedIn these days and you’ll get an answer pretty quickly. And the answers are often much better and more incisive than the educated guesswork of a bit of mathematics.

Clearly, Google can overcome all these difficulties – they have the experience, the expertise and the money to be able to do so. But at the moment, the company is rather looking as though it is in a bit of a panic because it realises that the advertising spend is slowly but surely likely to leak out to of Facebook. And we will go with it, as we increasingly rediscover that human search is superior to an algorithm in many instances.

2 Responses to Is Google having a panic attack…?

  1. pomahony2 5th November 2011 at 2:07 pm #


    About Googles' Reader.

    "I am mad as hell and…"

  2. Michael 6th November 2011 at 5:29 pm #

    Great article with some new facts I didn't came across before. Thank you for sharing. I'm amazed by the fact that every month 50% of all search terms are new. Is this possible?