Search Results as a Commodity

The recent spat between Google and Microsoft, where Google has accused the Redmond crew of basically copying Google search results, rather than using their own, actually points out something that I don’t believe Google is completely prepared for yet: the commoditization of search. Much of the focus on the issue has been on the actual testing and its validity, and the propriety of Google calling out Microsoft on cheating and implying alleged theft of IP. What isn’t discussed is what Google’s real motivation might be: to stave off the inevitability that search becomes a pure commodity. For now, Google claims supremacy in their search engine and search results. That may be true today, but it won’t be true in the near future. Why? Because I expect that, at some point, search engines will end up producing the same  or very similar results given similar input. Their implementations may be vastly different, but the end results will be nearly identical.

How is the bad for Google? Well, search is a big part of their business, since it gives them a venue for their advertising and sponsored links. Google holds a commanding share of search for the moment, so of course, they will be reluctant to give that up. However, much like other commodities like electricity or gasoline, eventually the consumer isn’t really going to care, as long as someone gets them search results that are “good enough” for their purposes. You can’t look at the electrons coming out of the wall socket and know whether they were generated by coal, natural gas, falling water or splitting atoms. All you see, as the consumer, is that the lights come on and the refrigerator keeps running. The same goes for gasoline: the feedstocks may come from West Texas, the Arabian Peninsula or Northern Alberta, but the liquid that goes into your car’s fuel tank all ends up doing the same thing, which is making the engine run.

It probably felt good at the Googleplex when people started to use the word “google” as a verb, and it became synonymous with search. But just ask the Kimberley-Clark people how they like that Kleenex has, for all practical purposes, become a generic term. They work really hard to protect it, but for all intents and purposes, they’ve lost control of the name, at least in everyday public, non-commercial use. The same is likely going to happen to Google: people will “google” for something, even though they actually used Bing or some other service to perform the actual search. The fact that two different search engines produce startlingly similar results isn’t all that much of a surprise. It has become the first step toward search being a commodity.

Google has had a good run, and will continue to do well for a long time. But they are starting to find that being the incumbent can be harder than it was being upstart competitor. Like it or not, no one stays on top forever, and it can take as much or more to stay there as it took to get there in the first place. Google has also spread itself rather thin, with search, advertising, Android, Chrome (the browser), Chrome (the operating system), GMail, Docs, etc, etc. Their attempts at “ready, fire, aim” with a ton of beta services, some of which never go beyond that early experiment stages, seem to have done more to fall flat than to succeed. At some point they may have to “grow up” and stop experimenting so much (or at least so publicly), if only to protect their brand the please their shareholders. That isn’t to say they haven’t had success beyond search, and the advertising that is driven by it. Things like GMail, Docs and Android have turned out well for them. But, try as they might, I don’t see them supplanting Facebook or Twitter. They probably won’t stop trying, but they may find that they are going to run into areas where their brand simple isn’t enough to get them a dominant position. But you never know: Microsoft looked to be out of the search business, but Bing has given them life that I think few expected in that space.

Is this the beginning of the end of Google? Not by a long-shot. Google won’t be the first major player to stumble or even fall for a while. IBM looked unstoppable prior to the 1990’s, then looked as if they were near death’s door for about a decade before they got back on their feet again. Apple today isn’t the Apple of the 1990’s, which was in a dismal state compared to how they looked in the 1980’s. Up until the around 2005, Microsoft seem to be indestructible, but their plunge in share for mobile devices, and their inability (until Bing) to put together a viable strategy to use the Internet, has made them less of a force to be reckoned with. Their stranglehold on the desktop, which once seem unassailable, is under pressure from both mobile devices and MacOS. That battle isn’t over, but Microsoft isn’t gaining ground there. Had you said 10 years ago that Windows would give up market share, and MacOS would hold 10%, people would have said you were nuts. But you also would have looked like a fool in 1979 if you said that mainframes would not be the primary computing platform of  the 21st century, and would be replaced by smaller, cheaper computers running an operating system that was popular with universities.

In the end, Google has to defend themselves, even knowing that it is a losing battle. As long as they are able to weather the storm, continue to find new areas to generate revenue, and live with the reality that their search site will mean less to their bottom line, they should be okay.