This year, Google turns 25 years old. Can you imagine? It’s only been 25 years, but it’s nearly impossible to remember life before Google and instant access to information. Google Search is present everywhere and at all times; it is the unspoken backdrop of every problem, debate, and curiosity.commoxvdbdfbvdfc
Google Search is so useful and pervasive that its enormous impact on our lives is oddly imperceptible. Google’s lofty promise was to organize the world’s information; however, over the past quarter century, a vast quantity of the world’s information has been organized for Google — to rank in Google results. Virtually everything you encounter on the Internet, including websites, articles, and info boxes, has been formatted in a way that makes them simple for Google to interpret. In many instances, search engines can now parse the Internet better than humans.
We reside in an information ecosystem whose design is dominated by the requirements of the Google Search machine — an automaton whose beneficent gaze can create or destroy entire industries with equal ease.
This automaton has its own priesthood and culture: an ecosystem of search-engine-optimization specialists who interpret Google’s pronouncements into rituals and practices as liturgical as any religion. Do you know why every recipe blog has 2,000 words of text preceding the actual recipe? The Google algorithm prefers the format. Do you know why every publisher includes author biographies on article pages? The automaton desires it to be so. All those question-laden subheadings that appear in the midst of articles? On the search results page, Google answers these queries in this manner. Google is the most significant source of traffic on the web, and as a result, the web now resembles a structured database for search rather than anything designed for actual people.
And yet, it keeps working. Google is so prevalent that the European Union spent a decade initiating aggressive interventions into the user experience of computers to create competition in search and effectively failed… because our natural inclination is to simply Google it. People enjoy asking Google queries, and Google enjoys generating revenue by providing answers.
And yet, 25 years later, Google Search confronts a succession of interlocking AI-related challenges that pose a threat to Google’s very existence.
The first issue is entirely Google’s fault: the SEO behemoth has consumed the search user experience from the inside out. Information searching on the internet is becoming increasingly antagonistic to users as search-optimized content predators operate an ever-changing series of monetization schemes with no regard for anything other than accumulating the most pennies at the largest scale. AI-powered content farms focusing on high-value search terms, such as heat-seeking missiles, already exist; Google is only now catching up, and its response will drastically alter how it distributes traffic across the web.
This leads to the second issue, which is that chat-based search tools like Microsoft’s Bing and Google’s own Bard feel like the future of search but lack the business models or revenue that Google has developed over the past 25 years. If the quality of Google Search continues to deteriorate, people will move to better alternatives — a transition that venture-backed startups and well-funded competitors like Microsoft are more than willing to subsidize in pursuit of growth, but which has a direct impact on Google’s bottom line. Google simultaneously pays Apple and Samsung tens of billions of dollars annually to be the default search engine on mobile devices. These contracts are up for renewal, and Google’s margins will not be spared in these negotiations.
Moreover, the generative AI growth is supported by an expansive interpretation of copyright law, as all of these companies harvest data from the open web to train their models. As a startup, Google aggressively pressed the boundaries of intellectual property law, telling itself and its investors that the inevitable legal fees and penalties were the price to pay for building Search and YouTube into monopolies. The resulting case law and settlement agreements established the web’s current legal architecture — an information ecosystem that permits indexing and the use of image thumbnails without payment.
However, the next surge of AI lawsuits and regulations will be significantly different. Google will not be the plucky newcomer presenting an evidently world-changing utility to judges and regulators who have never used the internet. It is now one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful corporations, a juicy target for creatives, politicians, and cynical rent-seekers. It will be confronted with a fragmented legal landscape, both internationally and in our own country. All of the early Google-driven internet precedents are in jeopardy, and if things go even marginally differently this time, the web will appear drastically different than it does now.
Oh, and then there’s the trickiest challenge of all: Google, which is notoriously scatterbrained in its product launches and fast to forsake things, must remain focused on a new product and actually develop a meaningful search replacement without abandoning it within a year.
This is not a prediction of impending calamity or any specific doom: Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet, is as deliberate and astute as any other tech executive. Google is a well-run company staffed with extremely intelligent individuals. However, change is an absolute certainty; these are the first significant challenges to search for in twenty years, and they are genuine. The extent to which Google Search may change in response to these challenges is immense, and any change to Google Search will have a profound effect on our relationship with the internet. And yet, the majority of people are oblivious to Google Search’s cultural impact, even as Search approaches the precipice.
It is simple to recognize the impact that certain technological products have had on our lives; it is simple to discuss smartphones, streaming services, and courting applications. But Google Search is a black hole: it is one of the most profitable enterprises in the history of the world, but it is impossible to see plainly. As Google confronts its obstacles head-on, the invisible architecture of the web is beginning to reveal its fissures. It is time to discuss the effects of 25 years of Google Search on our culture and what might come next. It is time to acknowledge that it is present.
This will be our focus for the remainder of the year in a series of articles that begins today with a look at Google’s influence on the media industry, which led to the creation of AMP. As the celebration winds down, we’ll also examine the world of SEO hustlers and the ecosystem of small businesses that rely on content farming to survive. We will investigate why it is so difficult to create a competing search engine and demonstrate how Google’s influence molds the design of nearly all web pages.
Google Search has held the web together for 25 years. Before everything falls apart, let’s make sure we fully comprehend what that means.