Google, Apps, and the Closed Web

The accusations Google has been manipulating search results have been happening for some time. It was this last article I read on the subject which brought about a thought. We shouldn’t blame Google for manipulating search results in order to favor their business model. But, as we reflect on how (through apps) Google did it and how the web may actually be becoming more closed than open, I wonder if the masses actually care?

As long as I get the information I’m satisfied with or get information from a search query that’s “good enough”, do I really care if I’m not seeing all the choices? Apps are showing us the internet experienced within the shell of an application satisfies the needs of many people every day. We have “containerized” the internet because it is more efficient to do so. It is possible this contraction from a broadly open internet to a more closed one is a result of the vast amount of data/choice out there. I’d wager most consumers rarely get past the first page of Google search results. I’m sure they know there are many more pages of results, but the first page is generally good enough. Part of this is because Google is extremely good at returning relevant results. The other may simply be that the first set of answers is sufficient for most.

There is a great book I read years ago called The Paradox of Choice. The book outlined a behavioral observation that too much choice can often cause people to be overwhelmed and thwart the decision-making process. In a world of more than 600 million websites and hundreds of thousands apps, there is, arguably, too many choices and most people don’t want to spend hours sifting through all the apps or websites their search results return. This is perhaps why relevance is prioritized and is critical to continue to improve upon, as the number of websites, apps, and overwhelming options continues to grow.

We return to the question of, is intentionally limiting choice through curation actually a bad thing if it yields what we are looking for? The walled garden experience of Facebook in many countries, or WeChat in China, appears to be gaining in popularity as the amount of time spent in closed web experiences grows across the globe.

We can certainly argue manipulating search results is morally wrong. Particularly since it puts Google in a position to punish or exclude otherwise valid options consumers should be presented. But, I do think there is a trend toward the curated web and the question of discovery is central to this shift. We already see evidence of consumers curating their social graphs to get the information they have deemed important. This includes new outlets and brands they follow, celebrities, etc., on things like Facebook or Twitter. Some data points from a research project I have on Millennials highlight this shift.

  1. Millennials acquire news for many reasons, which include a fairly even mix of civic motivations (74 percent), problem-solving needs (63 percent), and social factors (67 percent) such as talking about it with friends
  2. Facebook has become a nearly ubiquitous part of “Digital Millennial Life”. On 24 separate news and information topics probed, Facebook was the No. 1 gateway to learn about 13 of them and the second-most cited gateway for seven others 

  3. Contrary to the idea that social media creates a polarizing “filter bubble,” exposing people to only a narrow range of opinions, 70 percent of Millennials say their social media feeds are comprised of diverse viewpoints evenly mixed between those similar to and different from their own. An additional 16 percent say their feeds contain mostly viewpoints different from their own. And nearly three-quarters of those exposed to different views (73 percent) report they investigate others’ opinions at least some of the time — with a quarter saying they do it always or often

While this is focused on news, it also has relevance to discovery. Many demographics in our research panels specifically point out that what friends are linking to on social media, Facebook in particular, is how they discover most current events. One has to wonder how much this curation will bleed into other areas and perhaps even search in particular.

Hopefully, what Google is doing is emphasizing relevance rather than actually manipulating results. Time will tell if the lawsuit reveals any further truth in the matter. Overall however, there may be a larger trend around the filtering or intentional limiting of choice by consumers themselves due to the overwhelming amount of information they are already presented with online. Consumers may be closing the web themselves as a result.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

9 thoughts on “Google, Apps, and the Closed Web”

  1. “We shouldn’t blame Google for manipulating search results in order to favor their business model.”

    Yes we should!
    In exchange for divulging personal, real time, information, Google agrees to provide a service. If the service is slanted towards Google’s favor, at the expense of the integrity of the information provided to the customer, that’s a rip-off. Google has not sold a curated service to the customer, and it’s also impossible for the web user to avoid making Google money simply by using the web.

    As long as I get the information I’m satisfied with or get information from a search query that’s “good enough”, do I really care if I’m not seeing all the choices?”
    Whether you care or not is immaterial. Others have signed up for all the choices.
    The “Paradox of Choice”. The only permissible censorship is self-censorship. At least in the case of search, there are other search engines available for a given platform. Choice is not a paradox, choice is a responsibility, and carries with it that burden.

  2. Self-reporting is fraught with issues. I’m sure extreme bigots sometimes go to only “very bigoty” sites an count that as being open-minded. I even read Apple sites sometimes !
    I’m not sure if it’s my perspective changing, but I do feel the news business is moving from information to entertainment, with a lot less focus on informing and educating, and a lot more focus on getting clicks and not antagonizing the readership. On most sites, you know what you’re going to read even before clicking.

    As for Google’s shenanigans, there’s 2 ways to see it:
    1- it’s their site, they do what they want. Apple’s “fail” page when my brother sends me iPhoto albums directs me to install “a modern browser: IE or Firefox”, hypocritically keeping mum about Windows dominating browser (Chrome). Same BS. In Google’s case, if their results quality gets too low, they can lose business to Bing, duckduckgo…
    2- Google is pretty much a utility. Everyone relies on them to navigate the web. They may get regulated, governments may want to build an alternative (same as I argue for a decentrlised ID/authentification infrastructure)… Regularly checking on their practices seems justified.

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