Evil, Greed, And Antitrust Aren't Google's Real Problems, Relevancy Is

By MG Siegler , written on January 23, 2012

From The News Desk

It seemed like this week could finally be the week when Google didn't make headlines for their decision to inject Google+ results right into Search. That hope lasted until Monday. Now the story is back — with a vengeance.

Yes, the particular flare up was aided by a clever bookmarklet developed by Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace employees working "off the clock" (but perhaps not "off the reservation"). But the reason why this particular issue keeps coming up — and why it will keep coming up indefinitely — goes much deeper.

Writing for Slate a couple weeks ago, Farhad Manjoo (who happens to contribute to PandoDaily now as well) came very close to explaining Google's real problem. He argued that by putting social data into Google Search, the company was actually making the product worse. "I'm Not Here To Make Friends", Manjoo titled his piece, arguing that social data does not make the search experience better in most circumstances.

Having used the Search+ product myself now for a couple of weeks, I mainly agree with Manjoo's criticisms. But still, his criticism is one level above the problem as I see it.

Earlier today, PandoDaily founder Sarah Lacy argued that Google is no longer fooling anyone — they've now fully strayed from their early ideals, and they should admit it. She included several damning quotes to underscore just how far we are from the early, "pure" Google.

Combine those two arguments and you have it. Google's real problem with Search+ isn't actually evilness nor greed nor antitrust — it's something much bigger: relevancy.

Many of us are stuck arguing the details. The details don't actually matter. Who has access to what data doesn't actually matter. What deals are struck behind the scenes doesn't actually matter. Whether Google is hurting competition by using their position of power doesn't actually matter. The destruction of the product is all that matters.

Unlike Manjoo, I actually think social data will play a key role in searches going forward. And I think Google's early experimentations with Social Search were pretty good. I just think Google is screwing it up now because they're trying to use their own social data, which, quite frankly, isn't very good.

Worse, because they're insisting on emphasizing their own social network, they're destroying relevancy, and user trust in the process. If you search for Hugh Jackman, you may be looking for a lot of things, but you're almost certainly not looking for his Google+ profile page. And yet, that's exactly what's shoved in your face.

And depending on which layout you're seeing, it could be shoved into your face three times — in the auto search drop-down, in the "People and Pages" right sidebar, or near the top of the results page itself.

It's unnatural. Google is manually placing these Google+ profile pages in there. That's what Focus On The User stuff today highlights so well, and why it resonates. You can argue that Google has the right to do what they want, but you can't argue against the fact that such a tactic is in direct opposition to what made Google great in the first place: relevancy.

This is all that matters. At the end of the day, Google's insistance of pumping up Google+ is making their product worse.

Obviously, one has to believe that Google itself doesn't see it this way. But clearly plenty of others outside the company do. And, by the way, this includes many current and former Googlers, who believe Google is simply in the wrong here.

Again, not in the wrong for being "evil", but because they're damaging the core product.

I'm going to go ahead and make a prediction: this does not end well for Google. I'm not saying Google falls as a result of this mistake — that would be foolish, they're too big to fail anytime soon — but I do think that over an extended period of time, whether users consciously realize it or not, they'll start looking elsewhere for their information needs because Google has strayed from their foundation.

Or, more likely, I think Google will have to backtrack. I think they'll end up killing off one or all of the new Search+ features. Or they'll figure out a way to back into including Twitter, Facebook, and other data (while saying it was their plan all along).

I've had a love affair with Google, the product, for well over a decade now. Many of us have. It's still the website I visit most often throughout any given day — by far. And that's exactly why it's so frustrating to watch Google purposefully destroy what they've built in the name of bolstering a product that doesn't deserve it.

It's a mistake. The question is: how long it will be until they realize it?