It doesn’t take going out on a limb to believe that Google’s appearance of impregnability is only an appearance. Dominant companies can and do lose their position despite superior products, clear market leadership, vast resources and brilliant employees. Harvard Business School Prof. Clayton Christensen has made that case persuasively through his Innovator’s Dilemma series of books and talks.
At Google the risk involves the traditional core of its business — search. And the primary threat is not external, it’s from Google itself. Throttling third-party access to its vast traffic by pushing organic results down and off the search results page, cutting off publisher access to user query terms in organic search (which publishers use to improve and optimize their own sites), and generally making external content less visible to users will be lucrative for Google and its privileged partners, but it also will create opportunity for companies that focus on building public parks rather than private playgrounds.
It’s not that Google can’t make the numbers pencil and indeed prosper with this strategy. AOL exploited its walled garden profitably for years after users started abandoning it. But the strategy surrenders exactly the territory that enabled Google’s dominance in the first place — serving as the most effective gateway to the world’s knowledge as represented on the Web.
The great irony is that Google may very well be ceding that territory to inferior products. That’s because It doesn’t matter so much whether the search technology per se at a Bing or a Duck Duck Go is better or worse than Google’s at finding information (and I’d bet the latter is true). What matters is whether the delivery of search results taken as a whole is perceived as more effective for the jobs that customers are looking to perform. User experience trumps technology. No matter how good Google’s own stuff is, there is a world of quality information and creativity on the Internet that even Google can’t match. If customers — both the users and the creators of Web content – no longer perceive Google as an honest broker for the world’s knowledge, they are prone to looking elsewhere.
Although you don’t get rich overestimating the public’s discernment, this shift has happened before, and happened quicker than anyone expected, as Google’s own history vs. Alta Vista and the other search leaders of the ‘90s demonstrates. Blackberry had a fine garden for a while too. (Apple may be notorious for its proprietary frameworks, but the iPhone ecosystem was far more open than Blackberry’s, or that of the other players that dominated mobile phones.) If people think someone else will get them better stuff more reliably, someone else will prosper.
This isn’t about Google being evil. Google’s choice to fortify its territory may be disappointing or worse to millions of users, but that doesn’t make it immoral. Rather, the question is whether Google’s recent evolution will lead it on the path of decay where the evil will be the loss to the world of the company’s capacity for innovation and customer value.