Are Google’s Glory Days Over?

Colin Myers discusses the rise of the British Q&A service called AQA, and complains about all the junk you find with Google.

The internet's "search business" has had saturation coverage in the last couple of years, typically in hyperbolic terms. The subtitle of one recent book suggests that the company "rewrote the rules of business and transformed our culture" – that's a book that Google liked so much, it bought hundreds of copies for its staff. But very little of the coverage has highlighted the philosophical and practical flaws of the web search business.

AQA's researchers don't use Google (or Wikipedia, which we'll come to). And internet search is a business that may already have seen its best days, Myers suggests.

There are several reasons to support this view, and in some cases they're interrelated. One is that Google is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain its index. It's ignored the second law of thermodynamics.

It's an interesting thing to say because there aren't many Google dissenters around these days.

He goes on to talk about the idea of getting everything for free, and I have to admit I like what he says.

As Google's fate is increasingly linked to amateur or highly dubious content like Wikipedia – and the many sites who mirror or scrape its content – the contrast between high quality research and low quality web search seems ever more apparent. The popular fetishisation of amateur web material is a peculiar belief as it needs to suppose that paid information doesn't exist, and isn't better. Nonetheless, aren't we seeing the emergence of two worlds of information – one low grade, amateur, and beset by entropy: the open web – and the other of high quality? Of course those of us with membership cards are laughing all the way to our libraries' expensive database collections – and we can afford to pay for quality.

"I am doubtful that community based systems will be the basis of sustainable solutions. I suspect that a commercial imperative is necessary. It's the same with all these volunteer systems, they're idealistic, but no one comes up with a way of paying people."

The idea behind "free" and the web is that nothing is really free, you just pay with attention (to advertising) instead of cash. But it ignores the fact that low barriers to entry on the web make free sites expand at a ridiculously fast rate, while the amount of attention is fixed per individual, and as a market attention capacity only grows as fast as the population. At some point, it all breaks down as clamoring for attention becomes more important than providing quality products or services.

Society is only beginning the transition into all this collectivist business nonsense (yes, I know I was guilty of it too), so we still have a way to go before people realize the value of expertise and the flight to quality begins. The web has its fads, just like everything else. But back to Google…my prediction is that someday they will offer a premium service that has no ads, a nice junk site filter, and will charge a monthly fee.

UPDATE: One point of clarification. I am not pro-expert, because experts can be yahoos just like anyone else. I am pro-expertise. I think expertise is not something found in the aggregation of lots of non-expertise, or even small bits and pieces of niche expertise (because it ignores the context of each piece).

  • Honestly, I don’t even know where to start with this. I just love how people use “Amatuer” as a negative. Because, you know, the only smart and intelligent people in the world get paid for their knowledge. I’m sure there aren’t PhD’s writing thousands of articles on wikipedia, oh wait…

    Its late now so I don’t want to waste to much time with this, I am sure there are plenty of other people who will do that for me. Prepare to be flamed.

  • i’m sure that a lot of us bloggers are hoping that this is wrong.

  • Rob

    I don’t think knowledge and professionalism have to go together. Wikipedia doesn’t need PhDs, and amateur isn’t a bad word. But there is a reason we go to professionals. They know things we don’t. The flip side, the side you don’t seem to acknowledge, is that the current state of the web seems to be one that worships the value of the lots of amateurs as on par with the expert. Would you rather have investment advice from Warren Buffett, or from 2000 random Joe’s who think they know investing? The problem with amateurs is that, while yes there are a few diamonds in the rough, by and large they haven’t spent a lot of time on these things, and research shows that time spent on a subject equals expertise (see

    The problem with amateurs is that they think they know things that they don’t. Wikipedia is great for general knowledge type stuff, but it sucks for detailed information in many areas.

    For years, guys like Buffett have exploited the folly of the masses as they move from one stupid fad to another. I don’t see any reason that such behavior will stop. Remember that I started The Business Experiment before most people had ever heard the term Web 2.0. I was lucky enough to realize the limited situations where the wisdom of crowds applies, and get out of it before things went too far. I think over the next 5 years you will see many VCs wishing they had learned the same lesson.

  • For a comparison of paid and free content, I suggest you compare Wikipedia’s article on The Encyclopedia Britannica, with Britannica’s entry on Wikipedia.

    What many people don’t get, and don’t seem to want to get, is that content created by many amateurs can be way more useful than content created by a few experts.

    And remember, this collectivist business nonsense is a relatively new fad – that it even works at all is amazing. Imagine how well it can work with a few decades of trial and error under its belt…

    Also, I predict you’re wrong about Google’s premium search offering :o)

  • “The problem with amateurs is that they think they know things that they don’t.”

    That’s the point!!

  • Rob

    Maybe Wikipedia is a poor example to use because for general knowledge it is fine. But if you want to understand something at any decent leve of depth, it is useless. I agree that amateurs can have value, but the contenders are few and far between and the pretenders are many. Everyone thinks they know all kinds of things that they really don’t. Of course, I’m no different, spouting off here on this blog about some things I know lots about and some things I know very little about. The point is that in business, there is lots of value that is tied up in the history of the business, the knowledge of the employees, the characteristics of the industry, and the context of the decision to be made. To turn such decisions over to the “wisdom of crowds” ignores the value inherent in all that previous experience.

    Wisdom of crowds can’t tell you what to produce, because production decisions depend on more than just what the crowd wants. To listen to the crowd would ignore issues involving capital allocation, resource tradeoffs, legal issues, etc. that have to be considered when making business decisions. All a crowd can tell you is what the crowd wants. Certainly that is valuable, but it isn’t new. It’s just easier to figure out now with new technology, so there is less guessing involved.

    All this praise of Web 2.0 as revolutionary reminds me of a book called “Dow 36,000.”

  • I see your point Rob and would like to add a few of my own:
    The pretenders may be many, but the internet also increases our ability to weed them out. So far, the amount of crap on the net has grown no faster than our ability to sort it out.

    As for running businesses using the wisdom of the crowd, a crowd can tell you waaaay more than what it wants. It all hangs on what crowd you listen to and how you listen.

    Also I don’t agree with “Everyone thinks they know more than they do” – it’s too bleak. Even if it were true, the effect of efficiently collaborating crowds is precisely to distill the communally held knowledge or wisdom. To find the stuff you can use and trust in the middle of what we all know.

    If you ask me, we have only seen the beginning of what is possible in this direction. I definitely see our abilities and tools getting better and better – not worse like AQA do.

  • David G

    WOW – this author has got it so horribly wrong

    wikipedia is the worst possible example to use to make the point that “free” doesn’t work – google is next worse – it would be nice if the writer cited the “for-fee” resources that do a better job of searching the web – oh yeah, they don’t exist!!!

    search does not work for all information discovery – but not because it’s free – because some “knowledge” is only valid in a certain context, so you’ll never find consulting advice via google. Maybe the author’s expectations of the utility of google need to be reset.

    And just because search is not the most efficient means on discovery – does not mean that the better methods are “for fee”. Just look at blogging and yahoo answers – they are better ways (than search) to discover info in context – but they are still free.

    Beating up on google and wikipedia is like standing in front of a mirror with your eyes closed – their adoption has proven this a moot point – clearly there is significant utility in these tools. Can they be improved upon? Sure. Will that solution also be free? Probably.

  • Rob

    Re: people thinking they are smarter than they are, let me just say that the Lake Wobegone effect is in full force these days.

    The stock market is still one of the best and longest standing examples of “wisdom of crowds.” And what does that teach us? That crowds are subject to bubbles, biases, mania, and depression. The stock market is not efficient and has crazy behavior sometimes. Wisdom of crowds only works in a very small set of situations. While I appreciate your points, I think crowds are wise when they are rational, and that isn’t most people.

    While I agree that Wikipedia isn’t a good example, I disagree with you on Google. I think it is a good example because I find myself using for research more and more, as Google gives me junk answers.

    And Yahoo answers is a perfect scenario of crap vs. substance. I have to wade through 50 dumb questions like “which one of you ladies reading this is the hottest?” or “how was youralls weekend?” to find something that is worth my time to learn/ask/answer.

    The power of the web will be in personalization, but we haven’t gotten there yet. We mistake popularity for personalization. We think if lots of people like it (Digg, for example) we should like it too. I don’t want a site to show me what everyone else likes/does/thinks, I want a site to show me what I will like. Web 2.0 should be about pushing complexity and computation back onto the web, making the user blind to it, not aggregating what is popular, because that is too easy to manipulate. Does anyone really believe that the highest ranked sites in Google are the best resources? I think they are just the best at playing the SEO game. Does anyone really believe the stories on the front of Digg are the most interesting? Or are they just the ones that get picked up because the contributors I.M. their friends and get them to vote?

  • David G

    “Does anyone really believe that the highest ranked sites in Google are the best resources?”

    Yes, on many topics Google is the most efficient resource. When I use google I typically find what I’m looking for BUT I only use google as a lookup for stuff I know I’ll find. Google is just a big address book for content. What I don’t use google for is fuzzy searches. There are far better tools and communities for finding “the best” of something or “the first” something – google will never be good at that, so I dont go to google for advice – I go there for facts. Google is an awesome hammer – if you’re disapointed with it that may be because every “knowledge search” looks like a nail.

    I totally agree that digg is a crap way to find “the best” stuff – it is an interesting alternative to MSM though – the content is no more unique.

    No ammount of personalization will ever be able to read my mind and know the context of my query – tools like google will always need to be interpreted by their users.

  • An interesting angle and not one many talk about…