Saturday, April 01, 2006

Google as a Leech

Here is a nice explanation of the motivation behind suing Google and other search engines:
The latest attack, brought about by search's phenomenal financial success, is that search is sucking all the value out of millions of Web sites by scraping content in bite-sized pieces and doling it out to searchers, at the same time monetizing traffic that's being driven by content created by the site owners, not the search engine.
The article Is Search a Leech on the Internet? by Gord Hotchkiss, posted on, continues with an insightful description of how search marketers decide to divy up their advertising funds. It's a vicious cycle, where bid prices are relatively constant until a company is able to significantly improve its conversion rate, at which point it can bid more for ad placement, driving up the cost of such ads for all marketers competing for the same eyeballs and clicks. All of this happens without the search engine doing a single thing, effectively making it richer through all the hard work of the marketers.

Hotchkiss also touches on the issue of search engines acting more like answer engines. This is problematic because it, in effect, sucks all the value out of a website. Here is a great example:
They need a quick answer to a question (i.e., what movie had Brad Pitt's first starring role?) and often they don't have to go any further than the search results page to find it. The answer is often contained in the snippet of text that comes from the listed site. If you did the search above, you'd find that the site has the answer ("Dark Side of the Sun," by the way). The content came from that site, answered your question and you're merrily on the way, arguing about who played the corpse in "The Big Chill." But that's far from the experience the owners of wanted. They pay for their site by selling advertising. On the page that snippet came from are three separate ads. You didn't see any of them, but you did see the ads the engine chose to show you.
This kind of criticism is the central complaint behind the suits against Google brought by newspapers and book publishers. Through the process of making information searchable, which is in the public interest, Google has the ability to control the flow of web traffic based on how it displays its results. It can make money as well as deprive others of potential revenue.

So what are we to do? Hotchkiss proposes a new Golden Rule for understanding the internet:
While I understand the frustration, I think it's time for a reality check. The fact is, it's the new User Rule for online: Those that have the users, make the rules.
This is probably not the answer that most content providers hope for, but practically speaking, it allows for search engines to continue developing better search technology without needing to waste money defending themselves from lawsuits. Search engines do in fact suck value from websites, but perhaps the better solution is for websites to concentrate on keeping customers rather than advertising for new ones.

"Stickiness" was a term thrown around a lot in the past, but Jakob Nielsen thinks that the real value in websites is not their ability to have a visitor spend three hours there, but in their ability to make users come back.

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