It's incredible to me that the same search engine technology which seemed indomitable only a few years ago is now being seriously threatened by something most of us initially mistook for a silly diversion: social networks. The point is best illustrated with a story:
My daughter's hermit crab recently died and she's been asking for a guinea pig to replace it. There was a time when the first thing I would do is search Google for information on guinea pigs and do research to see if they would make a suitable pet for an eight-year-old girl. Not anymore. Instead, the first thing my wife and I did was query our social networks.
Two things are happening that are seriously undermining search engines right now:
- Because of Facebook and Twitter, we now have the ability to ask just about everyone we know and trust anything we want and get extremely relevant responses usually within minutes.
- The internet is flooded with extremely low-quality content designed to be nothing but search engine bait making search-based research less and less efficient.
In other words, the quality of the results I get from search engines like Google is declining while the quality and relevancy of results I get from Facebook and Twitter is increasing. And this is happening alarmingly fast.
To put things into perspective, I still use Google (and even Bing sometimes) several times a day — dozens, in fact — and by no means am I predicting the death of anyone. However, I am finding that my search queries are now divided into two distinct categories:
- Information seeking. If I want to know how long it takes for a wildebeest calf to be able to start walking after birth (yes, I actually looked this up the other day), I use Google (and frequently end up at Wikipedia).
- Question asking. When I have a specific question about something (Do guinea pigs make good pets for young children? Which brand of printer is most Mac-friendly? Should I go Nikon or Canon?), I almost always turn to social networks first.
(As an aside, a third but less relevant category is navigation: most sites have such poor navigation that it's often faster to use Google to find a particular page inside a site than to use a site's own navigation or search. Sad but true.)
What's interesting (and potentially very alarming) about these categories is their relevancy to advertising. I'm finding that the kinds of searches I do with Google these days are less relevant to commerce than the searches I do through social networks. In other words, I'm not going to pay for information about wildebeests, but if I'm researching the differences between Nikon and Canon DSLRs, I'm likely in the market for a camera and poised to spend some serious money. As you can imagine, this is a huge problem for Google.
So why are many of us unconsciously drifting away from using Google for certain kinds of search? The answer is surprising: because Google has become a victim of its own success. Google's search algorithms fueled an explosion in advertising revenue, both for Google and for publishers (sites hosting Google ads). Advertising has become such a big business with such low barriers to entry (thanks largely to blogging) that the amount of content specifically tailored to capture search engine traffic has increased at an astounding rate. Unfortunately, as its growth has increased, its quality and relevancy have plummeted.
I've become increasing frustrated with the quality of result I get from Google, and increasingly suspicious. I would estimate that at least half of the links I click on lead to information that was generated purely to capture search traffic and show ads. It's getting more and more difficult — and taking more and more time — to find high-quality results through search engines while simultaneously getting increasingly easy and efficient to simply ask my friends and let the information come to me.
Search engines need to diversify. Bing is branding itself as a decision engine rather than a search engine which I think is interesting and will very likely prove an excellent distinction. Google seems to be experimenting with the decision engine approach, as well (hence their recent purchase of ITA, I suspect), but Google is also trying to figure out how to be social. Google Talk, Google Buzz, Google Wave, Google Profiles, the ability to search your social network, and the rumored "Google Me" service are all strong evidence that this is certainly not escaping Google's attention (nor has it escaped the attention of Facebook and Twitter). However, in the area of social networking, Google is looking more and more like Microsoft: struggling to find a foothold, launching branded service after branded service hoping that one will eventually stick. This isn't necessarily a criticism — Thomas J. Watson said that the best way to increase your rate of success is to increase your rate of failure. However, Einstein also said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
It's time for Google to do something very different.
Although it's search engines that are immediately threatened by social networks, e-commerce sites are next. It won't be long before we're buying and selling through our social networks, as well.