Opinion – The news that the US antitrust authorities are taking a renewed interest in Google highlights the fact that Google is huge.
Estimates are that it p0wns two thirds of all Internet searches; its share of search advertising isn’t far off 80 percent and it also p0wns the News.
This doesn’t mean that Google is evil, of course. Its technology has just caught the imagination of everyone who browses the Interweb and “to google” is a verb you hear in the pub, while you’re kneeling on the pews in the church, and on the top of the Clapham Omnibus.
Publishers of different varieties are worried about the power of Google in many different spheres – from the grip it’s got on search tech; the scanning in of books, and the power it can wield because of the amounts of money it generates.
Journalists are worried too. All of us look at Google News when we’re searching for stories – it aggregates 25,000 news sources worldwide. You’d be a fool not to check Google News but the algorithm it uses for selecting stories is a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
The algorithm takes a selection of those 25,000 stories and ranks them – the perfect place for a journo’s story to be is on the top. As I write this, in google.com/news the top story in the tech section is Some Intel chips don’t support Windows 7 “XP mode” – written by Brooke Crothers from Cnet. This is part of a cluster of Windows 7 stories – click on all 599 news articles and it shows a timeline for the 599 stories. So everyone is writing about Windows 7 and it’s true that there’s something to write about.
But if all the hacks in the world are chasing the same story, where does that leave a breaking story? Unless a heap of other news organisations and the journalists that work for them are thorough and don’t rely on Google News, it’s likely never going to make it into the Google News list.
And that’s where there’s a perversion of news values. Rather than hunt for and break an original story, there’s a tendency for us all to just take the easy option and join the merry Google News carousel, without thinking for ourselves, making contacts, and actually talking to people.
Journalism isn’t dead, but Google News skews it in a particular direction. That’s more terrifying to me than the grip the company has on search technology and advertising revenues. Google is good, and people use it because it’s good. Google got where it is by default and snuck up out of nowhere. And as far as monopolies go, in technology they come and they go. Microsoft rules the roost with its Office Suite because it fought a pile of contenders back in the late 1980s and early 1990s – not always fairly, but efficiently and using marketing and its relationships with the hardware vendors to get its own way.
Google came from nowhere and it’s not going away in a hurry. It has competitors and that makes it all the more important that they compete. As far as I can see, nothing it’s done is unfair – those competitors have just let it ride. So Google is a monster, but it’s not an evil monster. It’s a beast, but it’s not beastly because it’s big.