Breaking Up Google

It may be time to break Google up. At a minimum, the Justice Department should consider taking up antitrust action against Google again.

The search monopoly impacts almost every part of the Internet, from content creation to email to data collection. Every small change it makes creates far-reaching ripples.

Google takes these actions to drive revenue for its advertising products. Revenue is derived from a wide array of advertising properties, including search, YouTube, ads in products like Gmail, and the far reaching AdWords network.

So what’s the hubbub about? Consider how the company uses data sourced from Google+, Android phones, Chrome browsers, organic searches and soon its sensors (via the Nest acquisition) to customize ads. Contextual and creepy at the same time, Google uses all of the data collected from products to serve the ad beast, which in turn suggests products from paying partners.

In doing so, Google pushes the boundaries of fair data use. Further, whenever it alters its search algorithms, Google creates tidal waves across the media industry, and impacts every single business with an Internet presence. Because of Google’s size, every business owner and media publisher must at a minimum pay attention to these changes, if not yield to them.

Google, The Data Bully

Google Searching
Image by Charles Ovens

Consider how Google pressures sites and companies to provide their data for free. When content owners and publishers say no, Google often replicates the data or it launches a competive product to replicate the creation of that data. This basically tells every data owner to you open their database to Google, or face competition from the Silicon Valley giant. Don’t be evil, indeed.

In many ways, Google’s creation of Google+ sought to replace paid access to Twitter and other social network sites that bar public search crawls. By making Google+ and Google Authorship components of its search algorithm, Google forced Plus upon content publishers and website owners. As a result, Google+ is actively marketed by millions of websites across the globe.

What would happen if the Justice Department acted and demanded that Google pay its competitors, and that Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn social data received equal weight in Google searches?

I’ll tell you what. Most content publishers would stop trying to make Google+ work. A vast majority of those G+ social buttons across the social web would disappear like outdoor Christmas lights retired in the midst of January.

Google+ would collapse. And maybe it should.

In its quest to ensure data quality and drive more revenue, Google consistantly pushes the boundaries of privacy. The list of privacy violations is significant (scroll to the end of this Huffington Post piece). You have to wonder what’s going to happen with data from Glass and Nest.

The search algorithm changes impact every media and business across the world with an Internet presence. You can see the panicked Hummingbird, Penguin and Panda update posts that dominated the marketing and publishing interwebs over the past two years.

Last year Google deployed filtered emails based on keywords and data to create a less spammy email experience. Even Gmail filter changes impacted millions of people and businesses alike. I wonder how many companies have to pay to have their products seen in email ads now? Personally, I’ve had a few emails unnecessarily buried by the new tabs.

With many of these actions, Google forces content creators and site publishers to choose between SEO and smart business. Consider the placement of no follow links in press releases and now guest blogs. Now you can’t transfer Google juice in what should be common sense business activities.

I value organic growth by attracting people to my site more than I care about search algorithms. So I tend to ignore some of the finer points (keyword placement, no follow links on guest blogs I accept, etc.) in favor of a good read, but Google’s changes make me consider each tactic.

Case in Point: Guest Blogs are More than SEO

Guestblog

I read Google Web Spam Leader Matt Cutt‘s arguments last week to eliminate guest blog links from Google’s search algorithm. While I am certain Google sees more blog spam than the average person does, the recommendation to cease guest blogging is a flawed one.

In particular these statements were erroneous: “Back in the day, guest blogging used to be a respectable thing, much like getting a coveted, respected author to write the introduction of your book. It’s not that way any more.”

Though Matt reversed his statement a bit with an amended title and a footnote at the end, this needs to be said loud and clear: Guest blogging is more than SEO.

Guest blogging is an attempt to introduce yourself (or a brand) and garner credibility with new audiences, the virtual road show if you would. In trade, you provide quality content. Even a respected author understands that.

Let me give you some examples:

I wrote a novel call Exodus last year that’s still realtively new. So I guest blogged last Wednesday on To Read, or Not to Read about the possibility of technology destroying us. It was a fun post that delved into post-apocalyptic narration and world building as storytelling devices. It also introduced the book to new audiences.

Then last Thursday I blogged about the coming Zombie Content Apocalypse on Copyblogger. Copyblogger is one of the top blogs in my business. It is always a great opportunity to offer a guest by-line there.

In both cases I delivered unique content to the sites. I believe the original content was useful and interesting to those communities. As a result, I gained a few new followers and contacts from these efforts.

If you told me I would be penalized by Google before I drafted the posts, it wouldn’t have stopped me. Guest blogs and articles remain a strong tactic. That is true with or without Google’s blessing.

This type of situation seems to happen with Google monthly, if not more frequently. And that is the problem with the Internet giant. Small moves create massive waves when you have all the power.

Google Is Threesome

GOOGLE-DRIVE-backgrounds-wallpaper

So how should Google be broken up? Personally, I think Google should be broken up into three companies to create a fairer Internet ecosystem.

The first is the search engine itself as a stand-alone product. When tied to other content elements on the Internet, Google search achieves insurmountable economies of scale. Google tends to leverage search, its various sepearate content mechanisms, and its software (Chrome and Android) for unfair advantages, most notably data mining and the weighting of Google+ in its search algorithm.

The second company would be software products, from Gmail to Android. Also included in this second company would be YouTube, Chrome, Feedburner, and other application elements. In many ways, search is search, and company x is content. We will call this company Google2.

Google3 would be comprised of the hardware companies. Glass, Motorola and Nest would be form Google3. Why seperate these companies from the group? Google clearly uses data to its advantage. Creating and acquiring new devices to capture data seems to be an evolving pattern here, and one that leads to a slippery slope. Separation creates a forced check and balance.

So there you have it, my vision for a safer Internet sans the Google Empire. Much like AT&T, the Baby Bells, and Lucent Technologies in the post telecom divestiture era, the three Google companies would all be very powerful in their own right.

Google Pays to Avoid Trust Busting

7985117705_7b6bb5f4c4_z

Like other big business lobbies, Google will likely avoid action or penalities for leveraging all of its business powers. Google pays to make sure its agenda is at the forefront of DC legislators’ and administrators’ minds. There are too many dollars at stake.

Washington, DC is a town built on special interest dollars. We all know this; the money involved is a central problem in today’s political gridlock.

Google was the largest tech lobbying company in DC in 2013 with $14 million spent. Ironically, this is a significant decrease over the prior year when Google faced antitrust action.

Though Google may be too powerful, it would take significant public outcry for Washington to act. Google knows the game and plays the system on every corner. We will have to continue dealing with Google’s data manipulation and Internet tactics.

It could be worse. While often overbearing in its moves, at least Google realizes that it can only grow by committing to better search, less spam, and useful information and data products. While I advocate for Google’s breakup, I’d much rather see this management team operating with these economies of scale as opposed to Facebook’s executives. That would be dangerous indeed.

What do you think? Should the government break Google up? Is the company too powerful?

Featured image via The Digital Reader. Capitol Building photo taken by me.

28 Replies to “Breaking Up Google”

  1. In short, no, the government should *not* break up Google. Antitrust laws were designed to protect consumers – not to protect other companies from competition.

    How much protection do consumers need from a service that’s free and alternatives are a click away? It’s a world of free choice – people can (and should) vote with their feet, wallet and clicks. Government should not be involved in determining the outcome of business competition – they’ve repeatedly proven to be inept and inefficient whenever they get involved in favoring one company (government-issued monopolies like the old AT&T sucked the life and innovation out of the industry – not to mention their rapacious pricing) over another or taking over an industry (can you say “ObamaCare”?).

    Just because some company gets big doesn’t mean it has gotten bad. Crowd-based decisions have a tendency to sort these things out over time – and sometimes in a very short time at that – and that’s the fairest, most innovation-centric way to do it. What incentive would there be for companies to reach for success if the knew the ultimate result was having that successful operation taken over by a group of elected officials who’ve never run a lemonade stand.

    Count me in as one very loud NO on this idea.

    1. LOL, that’s cool. But I am going to disagree with you on the people are using the free product bit. I think consumers need a lot of protection, at least in the FTC sense. Much of what Google does with data is behind the scenes and hidden in the small print. Consumers are unaware of this. I liken it to native advertising, and the way people don’t realize they are reading sponsored content because of shady disclosure.

      While Google shows more restraint than say Facebook, it’s clear that they leverage access for an unfair economy of scale. It’s a big problem that will continue impacting all of us.

  2. Oh my gosh. This is such a HUGE topic … so many issues.

    Google is an information cartel. On one level, it has done the hard work and deserves to be in an elite and profitable position. On the other hand, that whole thing about “don’t be evil?” I think we can put that aside, can’t we? There is probably no company on earth consistently pushing the boundaries of ethics and the law more than Google.

    I could argue that Google is the single most important economic force in history. So it should certainly come under some regulatory scrutiny. Banks are regulated. International commerce is regulated. Energy is regulated. Why not information flow?

    I will answer my own question — because nobody in Washington would even know what questions to ask. Remember the SOPA debacle? The legislators are completely out of touch with eCommerce issues.

    Superb post.

    1. Yeah, the don’t be evil thing is definitely not applicable. I do like how Google ended its facial recognition program, but for every good, I see several hard pushes and acts that impact businesses and customers regularly. It’s something the government needs to consider. In many ways, Google has replaced the FCC as the governor of information, and that’s scary, too. Could be worse, but still scary.

      Thank you!

      1. But one of these actions you cite—making it harder for businesses to get promotional emails seen, is a great benefit to me, the gmail consumer. I have been very happy with the new tabbed inbox system organization and being able to delete all the promotional crap at once with out sorting through my general inbox. It is optional, so if you’d rather support the businesses by letting them spam you, then don’t use that tab.

  3. Yes, Mark is right, this is a BIGGIE with a capital bold B.

    Even if they were broken up into three pieces, what guarantee is there that they would not continue the practice behind closed doors and lie to the public? Look at how we cannot even get fair representation in our own government anymore, even with all the structures in place to assure it.

    How do we operate with solid and fair boundaries when we see “regulated industries” still getting their way with enough money exchanging hands. Google certainly does have enough to grease palms.

    It would be interesting to see social data weight be equivalent and what that would produce.

    All good questions, now who is taking bets?

    1. I really do think G+ would crash if that happened. Content publishers wouldn’t have to focus on their fourth or fifth highest producing social network, and that in turn would still the waters.

      The questions you raise are great ones. I wish I had the answers.

  4. Great post, Geoff. I have to admit that I find some of Google’s practices disturbing. Like so many of us, I am disturbed by them and yet, the benefits are great enough–and alternatives few enough–that I put up with it.

    I disagree with Scott. No, we shouldn’t penalize success. But antitrust laws have been around for over a 100 years specifically to ensure a reasonable playing field that allows for competition. While there are other Search and advertising options, none can really compete effectively with Google. The truth is, for most businesses, showing up in Google is a necessity for survival. There is no strong competitor in Search and businesses can’t get equivalent business results optimizing for another Search engine.

    It may not be necessary to break up Google, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were taken to court on antitrust charges. Microsoft was almost broken up over the antitrust case resulting from the browser wars. Instead, they were required to keep barriers between parts of the business such that the company’s own applications and developers didn’t get unfair advantage from knowledge or leverage of the OS.

    I find this very reminiscent of the browser wars. Then, people technically had other options besides Windows, but in practical terms, Windows dominated the market just like Google does. People could install their own browser instead of IE, but by bundling IE into Windows, MS ensured that most people wouldn’t bother. Similarly, there may be other ways to get your ranking up, but Google is making G+ central enough that you have to work harder and harder to rank high without it. They are leveraging what I think could reasonably be considered a monopoly in one business to gain a competitive advantage (and what they surely hope will be a monopoly) in another.

    Great topic!

    1. I remember that, and MS was in hot water for a long, long time. Great comparison, there are many lessons that can be applied for that. And yes, the issue is monoply positioning creating unfair economies of scale in what needs to be an open medium.

    2. “While there are other Search and advertising options, none can really compete effectively with Google.”

      You’re mistake is to think that the antitrust policy was put there to promote incompetent competitors. Far from it.

      It’s not Google’s fault their competitors don’t come close to quality services. If Google was actively blocking competitors to… well… compete… you’d have a case. But bing.com is still the #1 result for “bing”.

      1. Frankly, I don’t think Bing or Yahoo! are incompetent, just like I don’t think T-Mobile is run poorly. Understanding economies of scale extends well beyond competence. Market position is hard to overcome, but when you throw the feeders into the mix, from Chrome to YouTube to Gmail to Plus, it becomes impossible.

        1. Google owns nothing to Yahoo but they do own it to their shareholders to maintain their users. There’s absolutely nothing illegal about it.

        2. Facebook, one of the most visited sites on the web, uses Bing for search, as do a few other sites with Microsoft agreements. Where is the problem?

    3. I agree in large part with the overall tone of this article. I won’t profess to know the gritty details of every bad thing Google has done, or why something is bad, but as a consumer Google has continued to negatively affect me in a number of ways.

      YouTube is going to crap, especially with the recent content ID fiasco that is hurting real content creators, or gamers specifically. But the straw that broke my back was taking away 1080p in HTML5 unless you use Chrome. Google is in a unique position just as Microsoft was, the make specific changes into how services work, and promote their own “standards” that people would instantly adopt because, “Hey, I use Google for everything anyway!” It’s really wrong on so many levels to tweak the technology of streaming on YouTube in a way that flat out breaks all newly created videos in every browser except your own product.

      I’m betting Google has Chrome all set up for the new Media Source Extensions BS long before they even rolled the change out. Which leaves them in the position of the only provider to provide “full range” service on YouTube while the other guys are left scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to work with this new API and the technology, using what little morsels you (Google) choose to give them as they try and play catchup.

      This happened several months ago, and I still cannot get videos to play in higher than 720p with HTML5 in ANY Browsers I try. And then on top of that there is a bug they are dragging their feet fixing where you can’t even view your own (uploaded as 1080p) videos in 1080p if you are logged in to the site.

      Google is getting too big for its own good, and the bigger it gets the more clear it becomes that their ethos as a company is changing. “Don’t be evil” indeed. Really easy to say such things when you effectively decide what is good and evil yourself.

  5. There is an interesting post/story tied into the “Don’t be evil” thing as it relates to what happens when you get to be the big dog. Sometimes I kid around and say “when I am king of the world” these things will change, but I wonder how fair would I be if I could do virtually anything I wanted without fear of consequences,

    The benevolent dictator maybe…

    1. I think that’s a great point. In reality, I don’t think Google acts as poorly as other companies, far from it, actually. It’s just that there size and power create problems. Therein is the issue. Small changes, big waves. Hope you are doing well, sir!

  6. “Contextual and creepy at the same time, Google uses all of the data collected from products to serve the ad beast, which in turn suggests products from paying partners.”

    I beg to differ. I actually want a competent company serving me adds that are actually useful. And only when I use their free service.

    can’t say the same for any other company

  7. All three separate entities you mentioned are already converging into one, and that’s not a bad thing. That would mean that Apple and Amazon should also split up into separate entities too. The only reason Google is winning in several areas is because they’re allowed to innovate, and they just happen to be out-innovating their competitors (along with purchasing innovations) in several areas. In addition, choice still exists with search and just about every other service they provide. Most consumers find the search results and integrated services a much better user experience. And even when some things are forced upon them, like G+, they still choose to stay. I’m certainly not against investigating and prosecuting bad behavior, but forcing the company to split doesn’t make sense to me, especially as a consumer.

    1. Well, I don’t know if acquiring technologies is really innovating. On the consumer front, maybe, but on the business front, Google’s power is extremely difficult to circumnavigate, and can wholesale change industries.

  8. I like Google just as they are now. The benefits they’ve provided me over the years since I first started using Gmail far outweigh, for me personally, the negatives you mentioned.

    So, I vote no.

  9. Right now Google is hot shall we say. Down the road, Google will have their challenges just like Microsoft, IBM, Ford and all the other big companies. Also should Google split then we would be looking perhaps at 3 Googles. Do we want that? Now we only have 1 Google.

  10. Great post, Geoff.

    I’ve been becoming increasingly resentful of Google’s activities and policies as of late.

    I already can’t stand Facebook-because of their bad attitude towards my privacy…but more than that, I worry about the pre-teens and teenagers who are unwillingly putting themselves out there. There are lots of creeps around, and Facebook just doesn’t get it.

    Of course I get traffic from FB….so…

    Google is changing…and fast.

    They’re taking free tools away. They don’t want people to search for the right terms to use anymore. (Keywords)

    They dominate everything. Their search platform isn’t what it once was. They’re getting really greedy. there’s less space for organic search.

    Hey…wasn’t Google supposed to be a great search engine?

    It’s a mess. But, until the company experiences pain-in their case, financial pain, they ain’t gonna change one bit.

    Can Yahoo!-Bing get their shit together already?

    If they did, if they were able to grab 50% of global searches, Google would be forced to improve everything they do.

    JL

    1. Interestingly, I completely agree with you. Even though I don’t think that Google should be broken up (as noted in my post above) because government shouldn’t get in the way of open competition it seems that the competition can’t get their respective acts together sufficiently to challenge the keeper of the throne. I personally have been moving away from using Google’s products exclusively (switched to Flickr from Picasa, Apple Maps – yes, they really have improved to the point of usability – from Google Maps, etc.) because I didn’t want to be locked into Google… but also because the alternatives were just *better*.

      Anyone in any market can be replaced. Remember Nokia, who practically owned the cell phone market during its primary growth years? Or Motorola for that matter? Yahoo, Alta Vista or Excite? How about AT&T – once they were deregulated they couldn’t keep any of their long distance customers in the face of competition from Sprint, MCI, et al. And now VoIP has eaten that world.

      In short, if any of G’s competitors had products that were sufficiently superior to what people use now they’d switch. Competition works. It only fails when the natural process is distorted.

  11. The “products” provided by Companies 2 & 3 only exist today to make the product of Company 1 more valuable. I’m not even sure that they have a reason to exist without the connection. (Which, by the way, would be fine with me)

  12. There lots are alternatives for every service that Google offers. In my opinion you should only break up a company when they have a monopoly and people don’t have alternatives. Examples of this would be telco providers like Comcast. In many cases people don’t have a choice on how they can get internet. Breaking up Google would be stupid.

  13. There is a fundamentally flawed argument in this post: it fails to understand how semantic search works and how, in order to work better for the end user, it requires a granular approach to understanding the contextual intent of the person carrying out the search. Google+ forms part of the equation that attempts to solve this. As such it is only one element and it is not intended to replace Twitter or Facebook in that regard.

    Because of the way contextual data is a required component of semantic search, even if Google is broken up, the data would still be accumulated via corporate agreements between the companies, much the same way apps that use semantic technologies leverage data from other companies to kickstart their own usage.

    As with the Bell Telephone company break up (which had a much clearer case for tripping anti-trust red flags) we will see a re-emergence of the current set-up, without any of the currently existing safeguards and, on top of this, a stifling of innovation and research (which require large budgets and a singular vision). The Bell research laboratories which became the seedbed for so many technical innovations and inventions that changed our world, died with the break up of Bell and have never been replaced.

    1. I understand semantic search quite well. The flaw lies in the seamless exploitation of data, but I do agree that companies will rebuild the path to exploitation with or without the Google monopoly.

Comments are closed.