The Slow Erosion of Google Search

In which I describe how social network sites like Twitter and Facebook might slowly erode the value and influence of Google Search.

Editor’s Note: this is a guessay, a portmanteau of the words “guess” and “essay”, which means that I’m officially making this stuff up.

I remember it very clearly. Four of us were getting together for breakfast last year at SXSW. We were waiting for a cab, and we started sharing our Twitter stories.

Each of us had one…mine was that I had used Twitter to find a room to share. Someone else had used it to find a ride from Dallas to Austin. Yet someone else had used Twitter to plan this very breakfast. We had used Twitter in ways that it was never imagined to be used, getting real value from it.

It was at that point that I started to think about Twitter as something other than a fun little SMS tool. It had real use, and the ability to shoot messages out to a larger audience was extremely valuable. I also started to wonder if Twitter might be the game-changer that finally put some heat on Google…the favorite conjecture of recent times is “Who is the next Google killer?”.

Well, I think I figured out how Google will be “killed”. Or, more precisely, their dominance will be eroded by Twitter and Facebook.

First off, Google won’t be beaten in search. That’s clear. They have the best, most capable search team on the planet. It is where most of their R&D goes, it’s where the best and brightest search wizards go, it is their bread & butter. Brynn Evans wrote an insightful piece in which she explained why social search won’t topple Google anytime soon, explaining how social search doesn’t have nearly the depth of traditional search. I think Brynn is right: the depth of the web-wide search will never be replicated by social search.

But traditional search isn’t the game going forward. The game is attention. And the attention game is becoming dominated by two players: Twitter and Facebook. That two-pronged sword will eventually be Google’s undoing.

One side is that Twitter will erode real-time searches. As Brynn explains, Twitter can’t compete in the broad search game, but the fact that people are always on Twitter means that’s where they’ll start. Instead of starting at Google, they’ll start at Twitter. So the question is: how many searches are real-time searches? 10%? 20% 30%? It’s very hard to know, but whatever percent it is is a threat to Google. And in a game where Google focuses on the tiniest design advantage to eke out another .001%, even 10% of searches being real-time searches is enormous.

The other side is Facebook. Facebook won’t compete with Google in search either, but they’ll compete hard with them in advertising because they have enormous engagement. They have enormous attention. Facebook is slowly improving their advertising and eventually they’ll hit a threshold in which it will start to really work. At that point advertisers, not searchers, will turn their attention to Facebook first. Then Google will be in real trouble…because advertisers are the folks who pay Google money.

So Google will be feeling it from both sides…Twitter (and Facebook) will erode real-time search. Facebook (and Twitter) will erode advertisers.

Thus the real problem for Google is attention. People are increasingly giving their attention to Twitter, Facebook, and other social software, and thus (indirectly) giving it less to Google. Also notice that services have traditionally been happy to give Google their search traffic, but neither Twitter nor Facebook are doing that.

So while Google continues to increase its search market share, and folks look at that and say “Google is only getting better”, what they don’t necessarily see is how much the social sites are sucking up more attention. And eventually that attention will be so strong that Google will begin to suffer.

Advertisers will probably still use Google for a long time. But where will they go first? They’ll go first to where there is the most attention, and I think social networks will eventually claim that lead.

Also, Google is competing in the social space. They’ve rolled out tools that let site owners put avatar widgets on their sites, but so far I haven’t seen anything that Twitter or Facebook should be afraid of. Perhaps Kevin Marks can school me on what they’re doing there, but it hasn’t seemed compelling as of yet. It still feels like a bunch of engineers got together and hacked something up. If Google wants to really enter the social space, they either need to buy their way into it or really light a fire under their social software projects. This is the classic innovator’s dilemma…Google is so good at search that their first inclination is to keep their resources focused there.

So in conclusion I see Google’s dominance being eroded by the social networks. It won’t be a direct assault on search, just as Google didn’t directly assault Microsoft by trying to build a better OS or a better Office suite. It will be a direct assault on attention. You don’t kill the incumbent at their own game. You change the game, and then beat them at that one.

Further reading: Mark Cuban: How Twitter and Facebook now compete with Google

Update: The June 2009 Comcast numbers suggest there may be some weight to this idea…Craigslist and Facebook had larger share gains that the so-called “regular” search engines. Read more: Who’s Really Winning the Search Race?

Published: April 10th, 2009