Google’s true threat

Many observers of the ongoing search wars keep looking for the so-called Google slayer.  Who, they wonder, will finally be able to pose a real threat to Google’s monopoly on the search industry?

This SEO’s two cents?  Google’s greatest threat just this moment certainly isn’t Bing, or really any other search engine per se, but a confluence of two factors: the changing nature of how people relate to and communicate online, and the speedy rise of the mobile Internet.  But before I get too far ahead of myself, I should explain a bit about the history of search and how Google changed the game.

The first automated search engines (Excite, Infoseek, HotBot) relied heavily on looking at the on-page content of a website to determine its relevance to a given search.  Obviously this approach is more than a bit problematic because it’s fairly easy to manipulate.  However, Stanford doctoral students Sergey Brin and Larry Page had a question in the mid-1990s.  It’s very easy to look at the content and links on a given webpage – but is it possible to find the links to that page from elsewhere on the Internet, and use those links to determine the authenticity and relevance of that page to a given search query?  That is a much more difficult question to answer, because ultimately what you need is a picture of the entire Internet.  But the answer to that question eventually evolved into what we know today as Google.

Due to Google’s changing of the game, one of the factors that has become enormously important in search engine optimization is backlinks – in other words, getting sites to link to you.  And we SEOs go to great lengths to find valuable links, because building out a quality link structure is absolutely critical to success in organic search.  The analogy I like best is that when a site links to you, that site is in effect voting for you.  But in the Googleverse, not all votes are weighed equally.  So earning quality, relevant links is the name of the game in SEO today.

With that in mind, here is where social media throws a wrench in Google’s gears.  This is a screenshot of my Twitter account:

Screenshot of Twitter

Screenshot of Twitter feed, with nofollowed links highlighted

See all the links highlighted in red?  Those links are “nofollowed” – they are blocked from being visited and indexed by the searchbot.  That nofollow attribute is applied by default to all links posted on any Twitter account, and there’s no way to remove it.  Same goes for Facebook, even if your profile is 100% public.

Herein is Google’s big problem where its search algorithm is concerned: people are increasingly taking the linking activities they used to engage in on widely accessible websites (blogs, forums and the like) to the walled gardens of Twitter and Facebook.  I know in my case, while much of my blog content was composed of giving backlinks, today I’m far more likely to share links I find interesting or worthwhile on my Facebook wall or Twitter feed, rather than on my blog as I would have in the past.  As this trend accelerates, the Internet community is stripping out the sorts of backlinks that are integral to Google’s ranking system, meaning Google’s picture of the Internet is developing blind spots.

This isn’t to say Google can’t or won’t figure out how to adjust to this new reality.  They’re now crawling Twitter to offer real-time search results, and as an experiment by a colleague illustrates, in some cases Google may count tweeted links in its algorithm.  But that’s Twitter; Facebook profiles, which can be blocked to all but friends, is a different matter entirely.  It’s clear that Google will have to stay nimble enough to alter its search strategy to conform to ongoing changes in user behavior, which will likely be a challenge as the company grows ever larger.

But what if the way people use the Internet, and especially the way they relate to one another online, is fundamentally changing?  Again, a personal example.  Some months ago, I bought a Bluetooth earpiece based on favorable reviews I had discovered via Google.  But after messing with it for a few weeks, I discovered that it just wasn’t doing it for me.  So I tried a different tack: I tweeted and Facebooked a request for Bluetooth earpiece recommendations.  Based on suggestions from a Facebook acquaintance, I may have my Christmas present clearly targeted.

There’s nothing original about asking somebody we know and trust for suggestions or ideas on a given matter, especially on something important to us.  But Facebook both facilitates and amplifies this behavior substantially.  Asking a friend here and there is one thing; instantly polling your entire trusted circle of friends on a whim is another matter altogether.  Even amid the rise of the Internet and search engines, word-of-mouth referrals remain the best sales leads around, and if word of mouth spreads that much more easily and rapidly, then on that basis alone Facebook poses a radical threat to Google’s continued success.

And this trend is only accelerated by the arrival of the smartphone.  The increasing ability – likelihood, really – of people to have the Internet always at their disposal, with the ability to seek information and poll their trusted circle, marks a radical shift in the information people can access and, especially, the way they access it.  To its credit, Google saw this coming way off (hence, Android).  But add to this the clear technical challenges in presenting the same level of search engine results on the mobile platform, and suddenly it’s obvious that Google needs to remain remarkably flexible to keep up with the evolution of the Internet.

One last point: don’t take these observations too far in any direction.  More specifically, I’m hardly saying that Facebook means the end of Google.  I recently heard a self-appointed social media expert assert with some confidence that the time was not far off when companies would shut down their websites in favor of Facebook pages, which seems to me premature at best.  But in just a few years people now connect socially and integrate the Internet in their lives in radically different ways.  Google will have to adjust rapidly to this and continuing changes.  It should be fun to watch.

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