Google’s Soft Spot

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Image by birgerking via Flickr

I remember the first time I’ve done a Google search. It was somewhere in 2000 or 2001, and me and a friend were sitting in the computer lab at Bar Ilan University, helplessly trying to search for some mathematical information on AltaVista (God, that was a horrible search engine). “Try Google,” suggested a colleague named Avi Mintz, and my life’s changed ever since.

Let me reiterate: I remember the first time I’ve done a Google search. It was that significant for me.

Google’s invention was phenomenal in many ways. Today everyone is talking about stuff like “crowd sourcing“, but Google managed to tap into a gold vein in the form of PageRank, which is the flip-side of crowd-sourcing: Aggregating intelligence out of voluntary actions of the population.

Not even Google understood the meaning of being the master of the search – they thought of selling out to Yahoo for 50 grand. Today, of course, everyone knows the master of the search is kind of like the Roman emperor at a gladiator match: His is the decision of who lives and who dies in arena of online exposure. Moreover, advertising fits in perfectly: The best timing to tell people of your new offer is when they’re searching for it.

I whole-heartedly tip my virtual hat at the Google corporation. They’re as good as any giant corporation could ever be. The doings of Google Africa alone are enough for a positive karma balance in 10 afterlives. They’ve filled our lives with so many great tools, for little to no cost: Gmail, Google Maps, Google Code, Google Voice and recent newborn Knol. And yet, there’s a big blind spot on Google’s radar. This blind spot is currently dominated by another prince of the electronic era: Facebook.

If I try to summarize the change Google brought to our lives, it would be in two main areas:

  1. Aggregating human knowledge in order to produce a beneficial artifact (and advertise for profit). This includes Google search, image search, video search, product search, etc. and to an extent – Gmail as well.
  2. Making the Internet as free & easy as possible. This is being done as a means of commoditizing complementary aspects of Internet access. This includes products such as ChromeOS, Chrome web browser, Android, Google voice (although there must be something else behind Google Voice, I’m just not on to it yet).

Global vs. Local

If I search Google for “great toys” I’ll probably find within the first page some of the greatest toy companies in the world. That’s great if I’m writing a news column about the toy industry, but if I’m looking for a great toy to give a nephew, this really does me little help.

Google was great at lifting us up from our local surroundings and showing us the world. However, now there is an ever-growing interest in taking these tools and applying them to local contexts. The term “local” can be interpreted geographically, socially (your friends) etc.

Google is definitely looking down this avenue: They’ve recently launched social search in Google Labs. The service allegedly lets you specify numerous social networks and then receive search results from your social network. I’ve written “allegedly” because 20 minutes into trying out the service, I still couldn’t figure out where I input my social networks. In addition, Google state that they use no privately-accessed data (such as that on Facebook), meaning the search isn’t that useful. I could already search all my blogs and twitter via Google Reader.

As Mark Elgan points out, Google is also offering geo-local information by means of “near me now”. It’s a great service, and has good potential monetization e.g. via tourism.

Still, Google has a hard time getting past Facebook’s 350M-strong barrier of social connections. Without somehow creating an alternative, Google is destined to suffer from inability to properly aggregate data within our social circles, most of which are reflected in Facebook. This is the thorn in Google’s search heel; This is also a very interesting opportunity for Facebook to jump into the search market.

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Posted Wednesday, January 13th, 2010 under Growing Software.

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