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« The enemy of creativity... | Main | Measure what you care about (re: the big sign over your desk) »

Is Google making the web stupid?

Jazz became popular because an opera-loving engineer developed radio, which opened the door for an ignored art form to spread.

And rock and roll was enabled by the transistor radio and the FM band.

More subtly, consider the fact that real estate developers lobbied for suburban train lines to build their stations in hamlets where they owned a lot of land. A station, particularly an express stop, would lead to more residents, then more businesses, then more investment in schools, then a bigger station, an entire ecosystem based on one early choice.

The internet is no different. Decisions at the center change everything around the edges, for all of us.

Aaron Wall has been blogging about Google’s power for years, and his latest post makes an insightful connection:

Some of the more hated aspects of online publishing (headline bait, idiotic correlations out of context, pagination, slideshows, popups, fly in ad units, auto play videos, ... etc.) are not done because online publishers want to be jackasses, but because it is hard to make the numbers work in a competitive environment.

Ever since the first commercial website (GNN) was launched by Tim, Dale and Lisa, the model has been the same: earn free traffic and monetize it with ads. 

There are two parts to this equation: traffic and ads. 

Google (the source of so much traffic) is under huge pressure from Wall Street to deliver increased profits, and until self-driving cars kick in, the largest share of those earnings is going to come from the ads they sell. To maximize their profit, Google has spent the last nine years aggressively working to increase the share of ads on each page in their search results, as well as working hard to keep as many clicks as they can within the Google ecosystem. 

If you want traffic, Google’s arc makes clear to publishers, you’re going to have to pay for it.

Which is their right, of course, but that means that the ad tactics on every other site have to get ever more aggressive, because search traffic is harder to earn with good content. And even more germane to my headline, it means that content publishers are moving toward social and viral traffic, because they can no longer count on search to work for them. It’s this addiction to social that makes the web dumber. If you want tonnage, lower your standards.

Google’s original breakthrough model for indexing the web was realizing the power of the link. Great content earned more links, more links got a higher ranking, and there was an incentive to create more great content. This was an extraordinary virtuous cycle, the one that opened the door for quality content online.

It was Google’s decision to send people away from the site (compared to Yahoo, which decided to keep people on the site) that led Google’s growth. People came to Google hoping to leave Google to find something worth clicking on, and media companies eagerly worked to make content that would give them something to read. We've always counted on a media arbiter to raise the bar of our culture.

The gaming of the SEO system combined with the power of first page results (virtually all search clicks come to those on the first page of results) combined with Google's shift to controlling as much as possible of the unpaid clickstream means that this paradigm is no longer what it was.

That means that a thoughtful, well-written online magazine has a harder time being discovered by someone who might be searching for it, which makes it harder to scale.

If you’re a content provider, the shift to mobile, and to social and the shift in Google’s priorities mean that it’s worth a very hard look at how you’ll monetize and the value of permission (i.e. the subscribers to this blog are its backbone). And if you’re Google, it’s worth comparing the short-term upside of strangling the best (thoughtful, personal, informed) content to the long-term benefit of creating a healthy ecosystem.

Here's the key question: Are the people who are making great content online doing it despite the search regime, or enabled by it?

For the first ten years of the web, the answer was obvious. I'm not sure it is any longer.

And if you're still reading this long post, if you're one of the billions of people who rely on the free content that's shared widely, it's worth thinking hard about whether the center of that content universe is pushing the library you rely on to get dumb, fast.

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