Search as a ‘Service’?

Rather than thinking about the England riots i’ve been pondering what Google’s search monopoly means for the ‘net. This piece, linked to from Daring Fireball, pretty much captures my view of the situation:

I’ve grown nervous about the vast scope Google has over the Internet. Users have virtually no place on the world wide web, no safe haven, no single moment, from Google’s reach.

They are a for-profit megacorp that holds more information about me, my family, and you and your family than any government — and they sell that information, every second of every day to the highest bidder.

They have typically between 75%-99% of the search market in countries around the world and doctor results to put selected results, typically the ones that most directly benefit Google, up at the top. While spending millions and millions of dollars lobbying governments around the world to shield them from monopoly laws, content and publishing laws, privacy laws, no-track regulations and more.

(Before heading off on a flaming screed on how companies in monopoly positions monopolise…)

As things stand, taking any other position than slavish acceptance to this state of affairs, is like raging at the weather. It felt similar back when Microsoft was making hay while the sun shined. Many in the industry felt that it was pointless to dissent, and a common business plan was to get bought up by MS. If you were lucky MS dropped a few million to buy your team, if you were unlucky they spent a few more and built their own…

Obviously MS is no longer setting the direction of the industry, but the industry is no longer ‘the computer industry’. Things have moved on. Now there is a much richer eco-system surrounding ‘information technology’. Also, despite its dominance in search / advertising, Google doesn’t feel entirely analogous to MS. It doesn’t seem to be able to dominate the entire field in quite the same way, this might be simply due to the field much larger and dynamic. Huge changes sweep through in relatively short periods of time. Apple in the consumer device space, for example, has created whole new markets literally over night.

Just as with the MS monopoly, my instinct to explore alternatives. Not just alternatives to Google’s platform, but alternative approaches to the default acceptance to walls of advertising, expectations of privacy. It has been an interesting experiment, there are alternatives in a lot areas, there some things that it no longer makes sense to do. It’s generally more work, even a pain in the arse, and raises a few hackles along the way… still, i’ve learned a lot, and it has given me new perspectives.

However, there is one area where there just don’t seem to be any viable alternatives, and it’s a big one: search. This seems odd to me. Search has obviously become ‘critical infrastructure’ for the internet, and yet it is de facto owned by a single player who appears to have few qualms about dictating the “quality” of results for profit / gain. There are probably a fair few players out there in internetland that are not happy with this state of affairs, indeed it’s already starting to creating silos / islands of data.

The reaction to MS and it’s dominance of the O/S, and consequently application, market was to go open. To start to share the burden of infrastructure development, to publish APIs, reduce barriers to interactions between systems. Back when the platform mattered, the platform was considered to important to closed, locked down, and subject to the whims of a monopolist. The end result, after over a decade, is that MS’s influence declined, and as alternative spawned, the rate of innovation appeared to pick up again.

My big question is: what will be the equivalent response be to Google’s dominance over search?

When the search was an empty-ish field, there was a lot of competition (Inktomi, Yahoo!, Altavista, etc) but over time it because obvious that a ‘winner takes all’ approach made more sense – having a single universal directory is better than either islands of search or aggregation of multiple islands into a single set of results. By ‘made more sense’ i mean, that it was the result that made most sense to the users, it’s what they chose. Whether having a single, almost canonical, central directory for search is the right solutions feels subjective. Maybe it depends on how much it’s possible to value / trust the system by which results are ranked? Tweaking rankings based on what pays best or what you’re algorithmically judged to be looking for… deep questions.

If we assume that users what a central directory, a single place to go to search, where does that leave us in breaking Google’s monopoly? Taking the same approach of opening up the critical infrastructure and distributing the effort would probably work. Projects like YaCY (no doubt there are many other similar projects out there, comment if you know of any…) look to be going in the right direction. Search data is distributed throughout a network of peers, and no one node in the network has complete control.

My prediction would therefore be that it’s unlikely that a single player will come up with a search platform, regardless of it’s merits, that will overcome Google’s monopoly (this reasoning, and perhaps it’s flawed, is also why i think that Google+ will fail to break Facebook’s hold on the SNS field – the network effects are just too big once a service gets past a certain scale). But, a consortium of the major content providers / ISP / tech companies, working out in the open, on a system that benefits all mutually, might just break things open again… or maybe you think that Google also has a monopoly on all the ideas related to utilising an index of the internet’s content?