Friday, May 22, 2009
Can declarations by tech celebrities (the technorati, as it were) start a snowball effect that impact the usage patterns of regular people? It doesn't always happen, but such sentiments can galvanize the crowd in certain cases, especially when attached to widely shared sentiments of fairness, transparency, and equity that have given rise to significant shifts in the locus of high tech power in recent years (such as, no less, the Open Source movement).
In other cases, falling well short of embracing open source models, consumers become more open to a second-place private-enterprise power because they see it as, at least, an "alternative." In the search space, that's why so many have continued to hope that Yahoo! stays solidly on the map.
Gina Trapani, the influential founding editor of Lifehacker, one of the most popular blogs around, says she's dumping Google search in favor of Yahoo! search. While this isn't exactly the equivalent of Jay-Z dropping Cristal and throwing his support to Dom Perignon, it may well be the start of a trend.
Before going down that road, it's worth noting that various pundits have previously predicted Google backlashes before, in 2007 and even 2003, and it seems to be a recurring theme every few years. Who knows, maybe we'll be saying the same thing two years henceforth in 2011.
But this time it feels a bit different.
As Google's supremacy over its rivals has quickened and as the Big G has begun intruding more aggressively on others' turf, concern over a potential Google monopoly is growing in many corners. This has caused many people to step back and ponder the consequences of an ascendant Google.
Recently, Ralph Tegtmeier (aka fantomaster aka the Dark Lord Voldemort of Cloaking) wrote a compelling piece comparing Google's burgeoning hegemony to the Kraken. Andrew and I debated it internally for quite a while, trying to decide whether concerns over Google are about to cross over from conspiracy theory territory into full "Google is actually becoming evil" land. Even the most forgiving of Google fans would have second thoughts of entrusting so much personal data to one company after reading fantomaster's take.
This unease with putting too many eggs in one basket is part of the reason why I've decided not to use Google Chrome as my primary browser, even after Chrome gets full extension capability similar to Firefox, which many people predict will lead to a mass abandonment of Firefox for Chrome. For similar reasons, I've also uninstalled the Google Toolbar from Firefox now that many Toolbar features are available inside the browser (I didn't really use the Toolbar much anyway). There's just too much data being beamed back home to Mountain View than seems necessary.
We've seen this sentiment repeated in other ways.
One of our clients at Page Zero opted not to install Google's Sitemap Generator due to data privacy sensitivity, despite the fact that they happily fork over their site activity to Google through Google Analytics. Their belief was that GSG acts as a network "switch" of sorts, with all server requests coming and going through GSG, and believed this would give away far too much sensitive information.
Search Engine Land has been chronicling the various anti-trust concerns associated with Google lately, concerns that seem to be proliferating more every week. For its part, Google is proactively attempting to blunt the momentum of this movement with their recent "charm offensive." Whether they succeed in fending off anti-trust actions in the future remains to be seen.
One thing seems certain. Just as the U.S. government's inquiries into Microsoft's business practices in the late '90s gave organizations like Red Hat and Firefox a vital opening, something similar is bound to happen with Google if it gets too big for its britches.
Could the main beneficiary of this be an old-timer like Yahoo?
It's conceivable that some shrewd moves by Yahoo! could lead to a reversal of Yahoo's declining search market share, and perhaps a resurgence to something on the order of 25% search share in the next few years.
Recall that Google's search distribution deal with Firefox expires in November 2011. It's a safe assumption that Google won't renew it due to their increasing support of Google Chrome. Or another way to look at it is, with Firefox's market share hovering around 20%, and perhaps headed to over 30%, Firefox might feel emboldened to be the one dictating terms. Regardless, Google must be a bit worried about Chrome's meager market share, as they've begun running TV ads for Chrome, a first for Google.
Mozilla could soon be in a position to be a quasi-king maker. They're independent-minded and, having emerged as a credible alternative to Internet Explorer even among mainstream users, they seem to be on a mission of sorts. If they decide to place a crown on Yahoo's proverbial head, things could get very interesting. Maybe we'll once again see a more diverse search landscape sooner than we think.
By the way, it's worth noting that last year Yahoo acquired the popular search-based extension Inquisitor, which I find myself using on a regular basis these days. It's a fine tool that I highly recommend to every FF user. Oh, and guess which search engine is set as the default? Yep, Yahoo.
Ultimately, I'm all for personalization and targeted advertising, and I don't really have a beef with Google knowing a lot of information about me. But there comes a point when too much is enough. When I realized just how much I rely on Google's services, it hit me like a slap in the face from Moe the bartender. Like Gina Trapani, I think there's nothing wrong at all with spreading the love around.
Labels: antitrust, firefox, google, google chrome, lifehacker, yahoo
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