Is Google Trying to Ruin the Internet or Just Doing It By Accident?

I don’t like making assumptions, but for the sake of this article I’m going to guess you have a soft spot for the internet. At the very least it’s where you make your money, after all. But you may have fond memories of the days when the web had all that promise of being an open platform for free exchange, uncensored media and all that wonderful stuff.

The open source movement was a great byproduct of that and Google was one of the major players in pushing a free web. But, the search giant whose company motto was once “Don’t be evil,” has a very different feel about it these days. In fact, I know I’m not alone in thinking Google and a select few other powers (not mentioning any names, Facebook) are killing our once-loved web.

Which all adds up to a pretty drastic shift for a firm that was born out of creating a better web for everyone. So what’s going on at the world’s leading search provider; is Google trying to ruin the internet or just doing it by accident?

 

Actually, Google ruined the internet a long time ago

Google

Yeah, sorry guys, but it turns out Google already ruined the internet quite some time ago. You see that groundbreaking PageRank system, devised by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, was doomed from the start.

By ranking pages based on the number of links pointing to them, Google inadvertently created the link economy that flooded the web with spam. Originally designed to create a democratic system where links acted as votes for quality, Google’s early algorithm was hijacked, torn to shreds, and littered all over the web.

It got so bad Google has spent the last eight years trying to clean up its own mess with drastic algorithm updates. Sadly, the damage was already done, though, and I’m not sure the web will ever recover (or if Google even cares anymore).

 

Google also ruined digital marketing

That’s right, ruining the internet wasn’t enough for Google so it decided to fatally wound digital marketing as we know knew it. Ian Lurie sums this up perfectly in his article over at Portent.com, highlighting how Google turned the web into a zero-sum marketing platform where winner takes all.

Back in 2006 an eye tracking study by Cornell University (PDF) found the top spot in Google Search got 50% of all clicks. No other marketing channel existed where you could dominate exposure to 50% of the market and prevent your rivals being seen in one fell swoop.

Take TV ads as an example. Advertisers had to compete against slots owned by competitors, which would be seen by the same audience. Google created the first channel where you could claim half that audience for yourself – not with creative marketing – but simply a higher ranking.

That system only encouraged marketers to invest more in securing that top spot in Google, turning the results pages into an organic list of corporate spiel. And this would only get worse as Google secured its place as the name everyone associates with search.

 

Is Google on a mission to ruin the internet?

Maybe we should cut Google some slack on its first two counts of ruining the web. After all, it didn’t ask webmasters or black hat SEOs to hack its algorithm and smear the web with dodgy content. Larry Page and Sergey Brin probably envisaged making the web a better place with PageRank, not turning it into a corporate cesspool of promotional garbage.

As I say, though, the modern Google has a very different feel about it than the open source pioneer that told the world “Don’t be evil.”

 

Google the dictator

Like it or not, Google holds all the cards when it comes to search visibility. If you don’t play by the rule book, you run the risk of falling off the radar. The saddest part of all this is that we can’t avoid designing to keep Google happy when our only priorities should be our clients and their users.

Take Google’s guidelines on page layout, for example, which you can be penalized for breaking. Topping the list of those guidelines is to keep enough content above the fold and go easy on the ads – basically the opposite of this:

 

Google

 

Fair enough.

However, Google’s layout guidelines also impact the word count on individual pages, the number of images (and other visuals), and the placement of both. But who is Google to say that 500 words of web copy is better for your clients’ users than a video, images, or minimal text on a product page? The fact is you should be making those calls and making them for the end user, not Google.

 

Google the capitalist

The screenshot above shows the kind of double standards on offer from a grown-up Google. The search giant gets more than 95% of its revenue from advertising and you can guarantee that fuels all of its decision making.

And that’s okay, Google is a business and it needs money like the rest of us. But I find it hard to accept Google laying down the law on design, under the guise of improving user experience, when it has an ulterior motive that users quite publicly hate.

Google is becoming increasingly aggressive with its advertising tactics as well. The mobile web has opened a plethora of new channels for Google to target users and track their movements. It’s no coincidence Google’s push towards “mobile-friendly” design has been so strong. And let’s not forget, Google makes basically no money from Android phone sales, but every one of those handsets is a portable ad machine for the tech firm.

 

Locking users into the Google infrastructure

You’ll have noticed the Google SERPs look very different now, compared to those early days when ads first rolled out. Results pages have more about them these days than simple organic listings and AdWords ads.

Google

 

On the face of things that looks pretty good for users; fans get to see what fixtures are on tonight and people curious about the competition get a brief description from Wikipedia. Let’s try another search:

 

Google

 

 

Only one ad in this case and the expected Google Maps feed to restaurants in Seattle. Good enough. Okay, one more search:

 

Google

 

Informational searches, in this case “what is antitrust law,” often bring up answer boxes that answer user questions without them needing to click a result. These features are all a part of what marketers are calling Google’s shrinking SERPs. In most cases I think these features genuinely add to the user experience, but there are some concerns:

  • Organic listings are pushed down the page
  • Users don’t need to click results, cutting websites out of the equation
  • Google is lifting content from pages and taking traffic away from sites (answer boxes)
  • Who is Google to decide what the single right answer to a question is?
  • Each of these features is a Google product, keeping users locked in

The first of those is a killer for organic SEO, but when the top spots are mostly dominated by big name brands anyway, the impact is debatable. Second, taking the need to click results away is pretty hard to criticize from a UX perspective. But the harsh downside is that websites get cut out of the equation and lose any traffic that would otherwise come with it. It must hurt when Google plucks content from your page and takes away traffic while they’re at it.

It’s the last point that really concerns me, though. Because each of these features is a Google product designed to keep users locked into the search provider’s various platforms. Why? The answer is simple: the longer users spend within the Google ecosystem, the more ads they can be targeted with and data can be collected from them.

Google’s hard push to promote these products has seen a string of antitrust cases brought against the firm by the US, India, Russia, and half the European Union. It can’t exactly play the ignorance card going by those answer boxes.

 

The battle for user reach is on

Research from comScore in 2014 ranked the top 15 mobile apps at the time and this is what the study found:

Google

Only one of the top nine apps in that list isn’t a platform owned by either Google or Facebook, and five of those are direct Google products. So the battle for user reach is well and truly on with Google and Facebook going head-to-head. The time users spend in those select few apps is only going to increase now that Instant Articles and Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) pave the way for faster mobile content.

We’re being sold these initiatives on the basis they make mobile browsing faster – especially in the case of AMP. But, more importantly, these technologies deliver full pages of content to users without them ever leaving Facebook or Google retrospectively.

Google is going full-in with AMP and it has already hinted pages built in AMP HTML will get a ranking boost over those that aren’t. So basically you can sign up to AMP and lock your clients’ content into the Google ecosystem or let them slip further off the radar.

But isn’t this all for the greater good in terms of a faster mobile web? Not when you can build equally fast pages without AMP, reach the same level of performance, and then rank lower than pages with the AMP label. Sorry, not buying it.

From the Official Google Blog:

The project relies on AMP HTML, a new open framework built entirely out of existing web technologies, which allows websites to build light-weight webpages.

You don’t need AMP to build incredibly fast web pages, but you do need Google’s seal of approval if you want anyone to see them. And for that you need to hand over your content, so it can tap up your clients’ users with its ads and grab their data.

 

You can either opt-in or get out

Whether you care about Google claiming the internet for itself or not is kind of irrelevant. It’s happening and the firm has no choice but to go all-in or lose out to the social dominance of Facebook. The problem for web designers is smaller and medium size businesses continue to lose their online presence and that means less design projects for everyone.

Targeting clients who have the budget to compete in advertising certainly seems to be the way to go for now. But AdWords, Facebook and other platforms will only get more expensive as the bidding wars continue and more businesses get priced out of the market.

So it’s not really fair to say Google is single-handedly ruining the internet, but it did start this zero-sum game where the only biggest brands can win. And it couldn’t stop now, even if it wanted to, because its entire income relies on staying competitive in this model it created. This spells pretty bad news for web professionals and end users alike, because the internet has become little more than an interactive advert where the same brands dominate across the board.