Over the past 25 years, the name “Google” has become synonymous with the idea of searching for anything online.
Likewise, “Hoover” means to use a vacuum cleaner, the dictionaries recognized “to Google” as meaning to undertake an online research using any available service.
Former competitors like AltaVista and AskJeeves are long gone, and existing alternatives such as Bing and DuckDuckGo currently pose little threat to Google’s dominance. But moving our web search habits to a single provider comes with significant risks.
Google also dominates the web browser market (almost two-thirds of browsers are Chrome) and web advertising (Google Ads has a estimated share of 29% of all digital advertising in 2021). This combination of browser, search and advertising has generated considerable interest from competition and competition regulators around the world.
Leaving business interests aside, is Google really effective when we Google? Are search results (which clearly influence the content we consume) giving us the answers we want?
It is clear that there is a significant business advantage in selling advertising while controlling the results of most web searches undertaken around the world.
This is clearly seen in the search results. Studies have shown Internet users are less and less willing to scroll down the page or spend less time on content below the “fold” (the content limit on your screen). This makes the space at the top of the search results more and more valuable.
In the example below, you might need to scroll down three screens before you find actual search results rather than paid promotions.
While Google (and indeed many users) may say that the results are always useful and save time, it is clear that the design of the page and the emphasis on paid ads will influence behavior. All of this is reinforced by the use of a pay with a click advertising model based on enticing users to click on advertisements.
– Ginny Marvin (@GinnyMarvin) July 25, 2016
Google’s influence extends beyond web search results. More … than 2 billion people use Google-owned YouTube every month (counting only logged-in users), and it’s often considered the number one platform for online advertising.
While YouTube is as ubiquitous for video sharing as Google is for search, YouTube users have one option to avoid ads: pay for a premium membership. However, only a tiny fraction of users opt for the paid option.
The complexity (and expectations) of search engines has increased over their lifetimes, in line with our reliance on technology.
For example, someone trying to explore a tourist destination may be tempted to search “What should I do to visit the Simpsons gap”.
The Google search result will show a number of results, but from the user’s perspective, the information is spread across multiple sites. To get the desired information, users have to visit a number of websites.
Google is working to bring this information together. The search engine now uses sophisticated “natural language processing” software called BERT, developed in 2018, which attempts to identify the intention behind a search, rather than just searching for text strings. AskJeeves tried something similar in 1997, but the technology is now more advanced.
BERT will soon be replaced by MUM (Multitasking unified model), which tries to go further and understand the context of a research and provide more detailed answers. Google claims that MUM is perhaps 1,000 times more powerful than BERT, and is able to provide the kind of advice a human expert might give for questions without a straightforward answer.
Are we now locked into Google?
Considering Google’s market share and influence in our daily lives, it may seem impossible to think of any alternatives. However, Google isn’t the only show in town. Microsoft’s Bing search engine has a modest level of popularity in the United States, although it will struggle to escape the Microsoft brand.
While Google may dominate with its search engine service, it also covers artificial intelligence, health care, autonomous vehicles, cloud computing services, computer devices and a plethora of home automation devices. While we may move away from Google’s grip on our web browsing activities, a whole new range of future challenges for consumers are looming on the horizon.