Search Engines: The Google Backlash
When I run my courses on advanced Internet searching I always ask the delegates the question 'Which search engine do you tend to use most often?' A few years ago I could always expect to get half a dozen different answers, ranging from AltaVista to Yahoo! with a few others in between. Now however I can almost guarantee that it will be a single answer, and that's 'Google'. We're all aware of the power of Google, and the way in which, in the last couple of years, it has almost totally dominated the search engine scene. However, as is always the case when a leader in a particular field dominates to the extent that Google has, it becomes a target for adverse publicity and has to constantly fight off challenges to its position; and as we move well into 2004 this backlash is beginning to take shape and this year sees us in the year of the search wars. Several pundits have already said that this is going to be the year that Google faces its greatest challenges, but the seeds were sown early last year. In this article I'm going to look at the Google backlash and try to assess (or at least provide pointers to) the areas in which this search engine is going to have to compete in order to keep its prime position.
Criticism in 2003
An early article expressing concern over Google was published by the BBC back in February 2003 entitled 'Is Google too powerful?'  A key argument in the article is that Google (even then) had become too powerful for its, and our, own good, and this can be be exemplified by the following quotation:
'Perhaps the time has come to recognise this dominant search engine for what it is - a public utility that must be regulated in the public interest.'
Criticism of Google continued in April 2003 with a document entitled 'Empirical analysis of Google SafeSearch', published by Harvard Law School, which criticised the 'safe search' function of Google . To save you the trouble of reading the document, it basically concludes that the safe search didn't work properly, blocking tens of thousands of pages that had no sexual content, either graphical or textual. While at first glance this appears to be in an entirely different area, the key thrust of the article is the same as the BBC commentary - reliance on a single search engine is a bad idea, since you as searcher are handing over a great deal of control to another organisation over which you yourself can have no influence; though to be fair, this criticism is also valid for just about any other search engine out there.
The trend continued in May 2003; an article in the Salt Lake Tribune  raised questions relating to the huge amount of data that Google made available, and that it could easily be used for the purpose of stalking someone, together with a concern about the data the search engine can find by collecting details from people who use the service. Google responded by stating that it only examined a tiny fraction of the data it collected, and that it was anonymous. Of course, much the same criticism could be levelled against any other search engine; if people put personal information on the Web any search engine could in theory find it and make it available, so it's easy to argue that it's down to individuals to regulate personal data themselves. While this is true, I found it interesting that, once again, the focal point of the article was on how dangerous Google was, rather than broadening the debate out more widely to cover the dangers that all search engines represent.
An article in the Salon  in June 2003 actually uses the phrase 'The Google Backlash', and highlights the concern some analysts had regarding the power of the engine. In a long and involved article Google was criticised in a great many different areas, covering accuracy, its control over advertising, (and by implication the people who advertise with it), its secrecy and its influence over the results it provides.
At this point, the criticism is beginning to take shape - Google is too big, it's too powerful, out of control, secretive and a dangerous tool. Personally I think this is going too far - no one has to use the search engine, and the same criticisms can be levelled at other engines, but the fact that all these articles are criticising Google, rather than search engines generally is significant.
Criticism continued into June 2003, with an article entitled 'Digging for Googleholes - Google may be our God, but its not omnipotent' . While the article is (in my opinion fair and unbiased) it does heavily criticise the results Google returns, and this can perhaps best be illustrated with a quotation from the article:
'We're wrong to think of Google as a pure reference source. It's closer to a collectively authored op-ed page-filled with bias, polemics, and a skewed sense of proportion-than an encyclopedia. It's still the connected world's most dazzling place to visit, a perfect condensation of the Web's wider anarchy. Just don't call it an oracle.'
In November 2003 the infamous 'Florida update' was the focus of much attention. Google did a major update and many sites lost their coveted no.1 position; and some seemed to disappear entirely. An interesting article in Searchengineguide  goes into a lot more detail than I'm able to here; but once again the focal point of the article was that, at least for search engine optimisers like webmasters who rely on Google for traffic and profits, it had become very much a double-edged sword. So the 'Florida update' proved to be yet another area where the engine, (which until that point for some at least, had been able to do no wrong), looked less than perfect.
Irrespective of the rights or wrongs of Google's approach here, (and it could easily be argued that their concern was to provide more accurate results), another very important group discovered in no uncertain terms that not only could Google do pretty much as it pleased, but that it elected to do so! One of the unintentional messages generated by the 'Florida' update was that people could no longer rely on Google in the way they had done before. From a searcher's perspective, I have to say that I think this is no bad thing - professional searchers wouldn't just use the same reference book to answer queries, so why should they use the same search engine? It just doesn't make professional sense to do this.
Criticism in 2004
By the beginning of 2004 competition to Google really started to arise from another important area - other search engines. Yahoo! dropped Google to use data that it had acquired in purchases of Alltheweb, AltaVista and Inktomi the year before. This was only to be expected, and was not a large surprise, but in that single stroke, Google lost a large percentage of the market share it had previously enjoyed. More details on this are to be found in a short article at Pandia . Furthermore, on the searching front Gary Price wrote a depressingly accurate article subtitled 'Google is a great search engine, but it is not perfect.'  and listed ten things that the search engine needed to address. I'm not going to try and paraphrase everything that Gary said, but I think one phrase was particularly telling - 'Google is a fine product and has done good things for web search. However, it's not the solution.'
On 24 February 2004 the Independent newspaper ran an article entitled 'The hit factory'  that really brought the whole question out into the open - 'could the Google phenomenon crash as spectacularly as it was born?' This was quickly followed by another article from Internet Search Engine Database  talking about the erosion of the importance of Google, and the rise of the competition, most notably Yahoo and of course Microsoft. Yet another article in February from the Christian Science Monitor  entitled '9,000 Google hits can't be wrong - or can they?' demonstrated the importance of not relying on the results that Google provides. A telling point made in the article was:
'Sad to say, plugging Google has become almost a telltale sign of sloppy reporting, a hack's version of a Rolodex. Journalists should be sourcing hard statistics, not search-engine evidence, to bolster their stories.'
While the article was really criticising journalists who simply used Google to provide material for their stories, there's no getting away from the secondary thrust, building on previous articles that Google is not to be trusted. Again, the same criticism could be levelled at any and all search engines, but it's Google that comes in for the criticism.
If that wasn't enough, 'Google Grumbles' - an article in eWeek  points out that Google results are becoming less reliable and that Teoma, with its "Subject-Specific Popularity" method of ranking sites could actually be a better way of providing more accurate and useful results rather than Google's reliance on link popularity. Shortly after that article appeared, Charlene Li, a Principle Analyst at Forrester also raised doubts as to the extent that Google will be able to compete in the search engine wars. Her article  identifies Google weaknesses in the areas where it fails to provide as much value as portals, tries to be all things to all people, has few advantages when it comes to specialised searches, and, because it is an innovator, other search engines can piggy-back off its advances, learning from the mistakes Google makes. The article certainly doesn't imply that Google is going to vanish at any point; but she feels it will not continue in its unrivalled position for much longer. Another article from Forrester  claims that Google will win only one of the three battles ahead of it - it will become the dominant pay-for-performance advertisement network, while Microsoft will come out on top with structured desktop searches and Yahoo will win out on the portal front 'creating a satisfying customer experience.'
In summary therefore, criticism of Google has been on the increase in the last year, partly because of its position as the search engine of choice, which is to be expected; but also because it is not, and can never be, all things to all people. Much of this criticism has been unfair, and could easily be levelled at search engines in general, but I think there is enough of a thread running through it to highlight clearly that Google cannot be relied upon over and above all the others. Throughout the rest of 2004 and into the next couple of years beyond, my prediction is that Google will be unable to sustain its position as the major competitors, (mainly Yahoo! and Microsoft, but others such as Ask Jeeves), nibble away at it. I suspect, and am hoping, that in the not too distant future when I ask the question 'Which search engine do you use?', we'll return to the 'pre-Google' position of several different responses, and I can only see that as being a good thing.
- BBC article 'Is Google too powerful?' http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/2786761.stm
- Benjamin Edelman "Empirical Analysis of Google SafeSearch" http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/people/edelman/google-safesearch/
- Mary Anne Ostrom and Matt Marshall, "Search Engine Raises Concerns About its Ranking System, Privacy" Salt Lake Tribune, May 26 2003 http://www.sltrib.com/2003/May/05262003/monday/60149.asp
- Farhad Manjoo Salon.com June 25 2003 http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2003/06/25/google/
- Steven Johnson "Digging for Googleholes." Google may be our new god, but it's not omnipotent. Slate, July 16 2003 http://slate.msn.com/id/2085668/
- Barry Lloyd Been "Gazumped by Google? Trying to make Sense of the "Florida" Update!" Searchengineguide, November 25 2003 http://www.searchengineguide.com/lloyd/2003/1125_bl1.html
- "Yahoo! dumps Google" Pandia, February 18 2004 http://www.pandia.com/searchworld/index.html#180204b
- Gary Price "A Couple of Comments About Google" Pandia, January 2004 http://www.pandia.com/post/020-2.html
- Charles Arthur "The hit factory", Independent February 24, http://news.independent.co.uk/digital/features/story.jsp?story=494453
- Jim Hedger "New Trends in Search Engines and SEO" 25 February 2004 http://www.isedb.com/news/index.php?t=reviews&id=711
- Lionel Beehner "9,000 Google hits can't be wrong - or can they?" Christian Science Monitor 27 February 2004 http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0227/p09s01-coop.html
- Brian Livingston "Google Grumbles" 18 February, 2004 http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,4149,1530367,00.asp
- Charlene Li, Commentary: "Google's soft spot News.com 2 March 2004"
- Forrester Research, "Forrester Research Asks, ''Where Is Google Headed?''" http://biz.yahoo.com/bw/040308/85555_1.html