In 2012, Internet giant Google seems to have been going out of its way to alienate its core users. At the beginning of the year, the company introduced the new “Search plus your world“ initiative that pushes content from Google+ to the top of users’ search results listings. Soon after, it announced a comprehensive revamp to its privacy policies so the company could collate information about users across all its services — search, YouTube, Gmail, Google+, Blogger, and more — and use it to target advertising everywhere. Although many folks couldn’t care one way or another, both moves struck a raw nerve with long-time Google users. The company that once lived by the mantra “don’t be evil” now seemed to be hell-bent on prying deeper into its users lives and compromising behaviors of its core services.
The question is: Does Google feel any backlash from these decisions, or is it simply too entrenched to rattle? If people don’t like what Google’s new moves, are they taking their eyeballs (and clicks, and searches) elsewhere? Or do they continue to use Google anyway, despite being uncomfortable with the company’s new directions? We took a closer look to find out.
Google has expanded into a myriad of Internet services over the years, but Google started out as a search engine, and Internet search is still the heart of Google’s business and the basis for most users’ interactions with Google. After all, when used as a verb, “Google” doesn’t mean connect with friends, view advertising, check out online video, or wake up an Android device: It means “search.”
Nonetheless, discomfort with search as it relates to online privacy seems to be at the forefront of many users’ minds. A new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project finds that some 83 percent of respondents use Google’s search engine, but 73 percent say they don’t want search engines tracking their searches or other online behaviors.
Search Plus Your World
The Pew survey looked into the reasons users are uncomfortable with search tracking and results personalization. Those 73 percent of users who didn’t want search engines tracking them viewed it as an invasion of privacy, but another 65 percent — almost two thirds of respondents — expressed concern that personalized search results would restrict the information presented to them in search results. In other words, by attempting to tailor search results to Google’s perceptions of users’ interests, it might in effect be putting horseblinders on them, demoting or omitting other items.
Why are users concerned about the effects of personalization? If the results of the Pew survey are to be believed, it’s because Internet users value unadulterated search results — basically, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Some 91 percent of search engine users said they found what they were looking for all the time or most of the time, and nearly as many (86 percent) said they learned something new or important along the way. That’s a strong endorsement of unpersonalized, old-school search results: the famously boring “ten blue links.”
Google’s “Search plus your world” violates that expectation in two ways. First, it puts personalized content ahead of old-school search results, in effect saying that the material Google customized for you is more important than the plain-Jane search results Google had been returning for years. Second, the user “world” that Google taps into is so far limited to just Google+. Most Internet users who engage in social networking — the ones who may want their search results colored by their online connections — probably don’t have those connections on Google+. Instead, they’re on Facebook, Twitter, or other services like Reddit, Foursquare, or even Pinterest. Content from users’ connections on those services is not considered a priority under Google Plus Your World — meaning for many users the service is “Search Plus a Tiny Corner of Your World.”
A bit lost in the shuffle, there’s actually a third way Google’s Search Plus Your World compromises Google’s core search business — only, this time, privacy-concerned Internet users might not mind. Google’s Search Plus Your World only applies to Google users who are signed in to their Google accounts. By default, those connections now occur over SSL-encrypted connections, so potentially personal information pushed along with search results isn’t exposed to all passersby as it moves from Google’s network, through the public Internet, to a user’s browser or device. (And if you’re in a public Wi-Fi hotspot, you really don’t want personal information floating around for all to see.) The use of SSL encryption an all Search Plus Your World connections means online marketers get less information about traffic they might receive from Google, including search keywords. Sure, Google still has all that information, but they aren’t passing it along to other sites and services quite so profligately as they do with the boring “ten blue links.”
Google’s decision to base Search Plus Your World solely on Google+ (for now, anyway) probably has two primary components. The first is expedience: Google didn’t need to enter into any complicated negotiations or contracts to use data from Google+ as the basis for Search Plus Your World. As an in-house operation, Google not only had access to all of Google+’s internals, it had quick access to the engineers and APIs. Can you imagine all the negotiations, lawyering, and contracts that would likely be involved for Google to integrate Facebook with Search Plus Your World? Simply put, it was faster for Google to base Search Plus Your World on Google+ than anything else.
The second factor, of course, is that Google is intensely interested in promoting Google+. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has flat-out admitted he “screwed up” Google’s social strategy, failing to jump on social networking when Facebook started to surge over MySpace and then disastrously putting the company’s foot in its mouth with Google Buzz (and accompanying lawsuits…and FTC settlement). Google saw a chance to significantly increase Google+’s exposure by rolling it into Search Plus Your World, hopefully giving Google+ additional traction in the social networking market. After all, Google has no more powerful way to promote Google+ than to put it front and center in Google’s core Web search offering.
How has that been working out? Not so great. Google+ growth skyrocketed in 2011, thanks in no small part to the widespread adoption of Android smartphones and (one assumes) tablet devices. Ancestry.com founder Paul Allen actually forecast that Google+ could hit 400 million users by the end of 2012. However, the sheer number of Google+ accounts isn’t necessarily a good metric: Comscore recently produced an analysis that found, on average, Google+ users spend three minutes a month on the service — that compares poorly to the seven hours a month Comscore claims people spend on Facebook, on average. It’s undeniable that Google+ has a strong core of active users who spend a considerable amount of time on the service — even hours a day. But the time those users invest is being diluted, on average, by an apparently far greater number of users who rarely or never log in to Google+. (Comscore’s methodology for both Facebook and Google+ is also a little wonky because it can’t track private interactions: A significant but fundamentally unknowable number people have little public activity on either service, but are chatterboxes in private.)
However, usage time divided by the sheer number of accounts on a service isn’t the only way to look at things. Another is traffic. Although Google doesn’t exactly publish server logs for Google+, marketing firms can keep track of the ad impressions generated out of their networks in Google+. Chitika, one of those networks, has reported a 31.6 percent drop in Google+ traffic from November 2011 through February 2012. Again, it’s not a perfect metric — Chitika’s ad network may just not be well-represented in hotbeds of Google+ activity — but it is an indicator.
However, Google+ does not seem to be garnering any benefits from integration with Google search. Google+ saw a sharp increase in new accounts and usership in the last quarter of 2011 — since then, the service doesn’t seem to have been able to hold many users’ interest.
Google has deep pockets, and — like Microsoft — can afford to play a long-term strategy to push Google+ to the forefront of social networking. But if Google’s strategy takes too long to come to fruition, the company might find the market has moved on from social networking just as Google+ starts to come into its own. Remember when Microsoft waited five years to start competing with the iPod, and how well that worked out?