In the old days, if you wanted to research a topic, or if you wanted to find out if a medicine is good for your kid, or if you wanted to buy a music system, you had to hop various locations ranging from a visit to the library, to a visit to the drug store for a long chat with a knowledgeable person there, to a visit to the local electronics store.
Along came Google Search and changed all that. I can research a topic, find out all the information available on a medicine, and comparison shop a music system, if I use Google. I need to have a lot of patience, as most of the results thrown up by Google Search are totally irrelevant to my immediate needs.
However intelligent Google may have made search, it is still only an algorithm fetching information from a whole variety of sources, based on the keywords I have typed.
With Google having the dominant share for search, it gives Google enormous power on how information, including commercial information, flows to the user. That is one of the reasons publishing houses are increasingly seeing Google as a competitor for advertising revenue. Rather than pay an online newspaper for an advertisement of their latest laptop, a vendor may be better off bidding for keywords that would ensure that their advertisement shows up whenever somebody does a search for “laptop”.
Does this mean that Google will be the ultimate arbiter of what a consumer buys ? I think that would be exaggerating Google’s role as a search engine. When I am searching the net using Google, all that Google throws up is a lot of text and links containing my keywords. Google Search cannot provide context. More importantly it cannot provide guidance.
Even as Google throws open the web to users looking for information, it also floods you with irrelevant information. What that means is that increasingly people will need gatekeepers who will sift the good stuff from the not-so-good, and the lousy.
Recognizing this opportunity there are a number of web sites and blogs that position themselves as buyer guides to everything from cameras to music systems, to automobiles to gardening gear. Not unexpectedly these sites have ads placed by Google on them, as well as ads from vendors.
So humongous is the web today, that we now need a new super-set of gatekeeper sites that will guide us through these various comparison shopping and peer review web-sites. How do I know whether a site is recommending a laptop from a particular brand, because that brand has long –term advertising contracts with the web site ? What do I know about the integrity or for that matter the maturity and qualifications of the reviewers ?
In the final analysis, it will be the well-known brands that will provide us our guide-posts. For laptops, for example, we are more likely to go to sites like Cnet.com or PCWorld.com to make an informed choice.
Google Search, and those sponsored links Google puts on top and on the right hand side every time you search for a term, may however be relevant when folks are buying a product they already know well, a product with either a known brand or well-known specifications. Then people are only looking for the online vendor that can provide the product quickly and conveniently. If people are looking for anything more sophisticated than that, they will look for gatekeepers and editors to counsel and guide, a role Google Search is ill-equipped to play.
Google can also ill-afford to be partial on search results whether in general search or in news. If I am looking for the latest news on Iraq, and I can’t get it from some of the better known and popular newspapers after I do a Google search, I will head straight to their web sites. If I search for laptops, and the key vendors or the key buyer guides I know are not listed, again I will look at Google as unreliable, and head for the web sites of the vendors I know.
If Google wants to make money on search it has to continue giving reliable results, and not play gatekeeper. Google knows that is not its role.