The Google Switch and +1: Search vs Social, Google vs Facebook
Today, according to the press releases now multiplying like bunnies across ‘online news sites’ and major newspapers of record around the world, Google added a social layer to its search functions. It’s new “+1” function is the online media behemoth’s response to Facebook’s ubiquitous “Like” function, although Google has been ‘going social’ for a while (e.g. Orkut, YouTube, Blogger).
Why does this matter anyway? For one, it gives us insight into two key functional characteristics of the Internet — search and social. It also sheds insight into Google itself, a subject that has gained increasing attention from academics such as Siva Vaidhyanathan (the Googlization of Everything), the media savvy journalist Ken Auletta (Googled) and staunch ‘new digital media’ sage and Google defender, Jeff Jarvis (What Would Google Do). Google is big business and what it does matters.
Google is increasingly competing for advertising revenue and Internet users’ time and attention with Facebook. Indeed, a shrinking number of digital media giants are battling for control the time that people spend online. This is especially important in Canada because Canadians, according to Comscore’s 2010 Canada Digital Year in Review, are the heaviest Internet users in the world spending, on average, 43.5 hours per month — greater than the 33 or 36 hours spent online per person in the U.S. and Korea, respectively (see p. 6).
In some ways, +1 is just another addition to Google’s ballooning suite of functions: search, gmail, Google Books,Blogger, Docs, browsers (Chrome), video (YouTube), operating systems (Android). The aim is to grab more of users’ time and to put more and more of the Internet ‘in the cloud’. In this case, it is Google’s cloud.
More services provides more reason for people to stick around with Google, rather than just the typical ‘search and run’ mode. Moving more services off the desktop and in the cloud also keeps people connected more often, in more places, and for longer periods of time overall. This has largely worked from Google’s point of view.
This is why Google dominates online advertising markets and search — accounting for between 75 and 95 percent of all searches — in every country, except Russia, China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea. The power of search as a general utility, and Google’s role as the leading provider of this utility, is also growing in lockstep with the rapid growth in smart phones and the mobile Internet, as a recent Goldman Sach’s presentation shows. Overall, search dominates social in the ‘mobile Internet’ and Google’s grip with respect to search functionality is typically growing across the board.
There are a host of things that we should rightfully be concerned about by Google’s dominance of Internet search functionality and as things migrate from the devices and desktops in our own home’s to someone else’s cloud (read my earlier post on ‘social media and memory ownership‘). Siva Vaidhyanathan has recently provided an extensive argument, in the Googlization of Everything, for why we should care. Some of his arguments are very thought-provoking. They go well beyond just the issue being discussed here. Here is a video clip of him responding to the question whether Google is a monopoly.
I don’t find Vaidhyanathan’s account quite as good as he seems to think it is, or quite as deserving of the praise showered upon it by some reviews. Some have trashed it, as the libertarian technophiles at the Technology Liberation Front did, but I definitely don’t think that their dismissal is right either.
Google is shaping the architecture of the Internet and the digitization of the media industries across the board. To think otherwise is to have one’s head buried in the sand. To think through why it’s important, however, is another matter.
Google so far has provided primarily utilitarian functions: search, scan, link, store. However, its not these functions, but rather the ‘social web’ and social networking sites — Facebook in particular — that are growing fast. Time spent on SNS sites overtook email in late-2007, according to the Goldman Sachs’ presentation referred to earlier. Will search be the next ‘killer app’ to fall?
The drift from search to social means that Google is increasingly competing with entities like Facebook — for users, for capital investment, for advertising revenues. In terms of the number of unique Internet page views per month, the yawning chasm that once stood between Google and Facebook has steadily closed (see here).
It is from within this context that we can understand why Google’s vast ambitions to colonize every nook and cranny of cyberspace/network media space now include adding “a thicker social layer” to its offerings. Always count on the tech-heads and marketing mavens to come up with a good line to summarize what’s going on. Here’s Dave Karnstedt, CEO of Efficient Frontier, in an March 30, 2011 Advertising Age article: “Injecting a social layer into the algorithmic search is key to relevance.” Translation: friends and family are key to Google’s bottom line.
Google’s ambitions have been seen as competing with and forcing traditional media to adopt new methods for the music, television, film and news industries for some time now. Now, competing with Facebook for the new coin of the realm — user attention — can be added to the list. There are several important dimensions of this.
The shifting balance between search and social needs to be seen in the context of competition for advertising revenues. Internet advertising growth is and has been explosive, growing globally from roughly $16b in 1998 to $66.2b in 2010. While online advertising has indeed grown very fast, we need to bear in mind several things.
First, recent trends will not not continue forever because, yes, like the ‘real world’, advertising spending online is subject to the ‘normal laws’ of capitalism.
Second, Internet advertising is tiny in comparison to Internet Access market, the pipes and ISPs that run the infrastructure that get content from one place to another: worldwide, the Internet access market in 2010 was worth $247.5b, or four times the size of online advertising market. It is smaller yet than the global television market: $351.3 billion in 2010.
Third, like the rest of the media economy, online advertising is also highly susceptible to swings in the macroeconomy. Like almost every other sector, except movies, Internet advertising fell in 2008 and 2009 amidst the global financial crisis attests.
Fourth, attention online has become more and more concentrated. According to figures cited by Wired, the top 10 websites in the US in 2001 accounted for by 31% of all page views. By 2006, the number had grown to 40 percent. In 2010, the top 10 accounted for roughly three quarters of all page views.
Online advertising is also very concentrated. With revenues of roughly $30 billion in 2010, 97 percent of which come from advertising, Google dominates the global online advertising revenue (e.g. accounting for 44% of the total $66.2 billion in online revenue in 2010).
In other words, while the galaxy of websites, blogs, information sources, uses, etc. continues to grow, Google and Facebook are becoming bigger constellations within the overall Internet universe. Growing concentration is sharpening the struggle between search and social, or between Google and Facebook — at least for the time being.
Google’s attempts to insert itself at the cross-roads of the emerging network media ecology have also upset many interests in the news business, book publishers and authors, as well as those in the television, film and music business. Many of these groups are pushing hard to leverage Google’s dominant position at the cross-roads of search as a major chokepoint for intercepting illicit downloads (see my earlier Rogues, Pirates and Bandits and Goliath vs. Goliath posts).
Cleavages between Google and the traditional media industries also means that its attempt to launch Google TV has met with mixed results. The fact that it has ruffled so many feathers is not unconnected to this.
The significant tensions between Google and other elements of the traditional media also plays into the competition between Google and Facebook. This point was underscored last week when Time Warner chose Facebook to distribute the latest Batman sequel, Dark Knight. For $3 a shot, Facebook subscribers can now download Dark Knight from the SNS. Does this mean that Facebook and other SNS will become significant new distribution channel for traditional media?
With its own ambitions for Google TV already having a hard time getting off the ground, Google now faces the prospect of competing with Facebook for a role in the online television and movie distribution business, alongside AppleTV, Netflix and the incumbent media conglomerates’ own ‘over-the-top’ offerings such as Hulu. Add to this that search is a utility, while social networks function as the electronic watercooler of the digital network media, and we can see why Google is scrambling to make the shift from search to social.
Popular entertainment has always relied heavily on massive marketing and word of mouth, with the latter point being given ‘scientific heft’ by classic studies in communication by Lazarsfeld & Katz in the late-1940s and early-1950s. Today, the links in the two-step flow that they identified in ‘small town America’ have been digitized and commoditized writ large.
As Christian Fuchs, Mark Andrejevic, Elizabeth van Couvering, and a few others show, search and social functions are fundamentally intertwined in the production of the audience commodity and the organization of audience attention. They are also crucial to organizing the vast quantities of user created content (UCC) that underpins the digital media economy.
Together, these functions are crucial to the digital media economy and the sky high market capitalization of entities such as Google and Facebook. However, with social already putting the Internet’s first ‘killer app’ — email — in a downward spin, we can ask: is search (and Google) next? Or, will these two functions themselves converge?
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