Google Lost In Real-Time Space

Last Updated Jun 29, 2009 3:16 PM EDT

Here is a parable about Google that its executives seem to have forgotten: There once was a Web site so good that although all it ever did was send people away, they kept coming back, over and over and over again. Only to be sent away again.
In fact, the only reason people keep coming back to this site is because it does such a great job of sending them away. This site has been so successful at sending people away, that it's been able to do very well with advertising: ~$15 billion.
But Google has become so preoccupied with matching Twitter's real-time search capabilities that it is losing sight of its primary mission, which is to provide meaningful search results. While none of its traditional competitors like Microsoft and Yahoo are likely to shave many points from its lead in search market share, Facebook (which suffers from its own form of Twitter-envy) may actually be in a better position to capitalize on the resurgent chaos of Google's search results.

Google tried to rein in the problem of search results clutter by segregating results by type of content (news, blogs, Web, etc.), and, more recently, by providing a timeline for refining searches by chronology. But since the introduction of Friend Connect, search results also include data stored on social networks that its users have agreed to allow Google to spider, and, more recently, Twitter.

One option for Google, of course, would be to acquire Topsy, Collecta, CrowdEye or some other search engine that crawls Twitter, and then segregate "real time" results in the same manner as it segregates other types of content. But Google is instead integrating real-time with general search because that's where the advertising dollars are. But if it chases advertisers instead of users, it will lose the users -- it's a lesson publishers once knew but forgot in the frenzy for online ad dollars. This abdication of responsibility, as much as any other technological or other exogenous factor, has led to generalized disaffection for, and distrust of, so-called mainstream media.

As I said earlier, Facebook has its own issues with Twitter, but it's not in danger of losing its way as a result. And Facebook is harnessing the same zeitgeist that is turning end users off the New York Times and onto Twitter, which is a sense of trust. No one on Facebook or Twitter is pretending to be authoritative -- they're just people you know, and you have a sense of how much to believe them and in what context.

As Fred Vogelstein noted in a great piece about the Google-Facebook rivalry

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg envisions a more personalized, humanized Web, where our network of friends, colleagues, peers, and family is our primary source of information, just as it is offline. In Zuckerberg's vision, users will query this "social graph" to find a doctor, the best camera, or someone to hire--rather than tapping the cold mathematics of a Google search.
Facebook hasn't found the best way of turning its huge customer base into a revenue stream, but its most recent attempt to get users to open their updates to a larger audience seems to have gone over well, or at least not led to outrage that Beacon and other changes provoked. More importantly, it does have that audience which traditional publishers have lost; not only 200 million users and growing, but users who trust each other and spend more than 20 minutes per session on the site. In its desperation to win every battle and to continue growing by leaps and bounds, Google is losing sight of the most important lesson it taught all of us: provide value, and people will return over and over again, no matter how often you send them away.
  • Michael Hickins

    Michael Hickins has written about technology and business for BNET, InformationWeek, InternetNews.com, eWEEK -- where he was executive editor from 2007-2008 -- The Curator, Pseudo.com, Multex Investor, Reuters, and Conde Nast's WWD.com. Hickins is the author of The Actual Adventures of Michael Missing, a collection of short stories published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1991. He also published Blomqvist, a picaresque novel set in 11th century Europe, in 2006. Hickins remains passionately interested in the intersections of business, technology, politics and culture, and endures a life-long obsession with baseball. He is married with two children and lives in Manhattan.