In his 2009 book Googled: The End of the World as We Know It, Ken Auletta recounts an illuminating episode in the history of the divisive web giant. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were graduate students when they developed their PageRank algorithm. Their search formula outperformed all competitors, reliably filtering out rubbish to deliver relevant information. At the time, however, its creators had PhD theses to write, so they decided to sell it.
Yahoo! was impressed by PageRank's efficiency. The trouble was that in Yahoo!'s business model, inefficiency was a feature, not a bug. The web portal sold advertising based on the number of pages its users looked at. By forcing them to click through screen after screen of semi-relevant search results, the company inflated its page-view count. PageRank would ruin that. Yahoo declined to buy, so Page and Brin pressed on alone. Now one doesn't hear much about Yahoo!.
At first sight, Google's market dominance appears to vindicate the "better mousetrap" theory of business growth. Why use another search engine when Google googles so well? And yet there's a growing consensus among technology observers that it doesn't google very well at all. The search engine has, in the words of the entrepreneur and academic Vivek Wadwha, "become a jungle: a tropical paradise for spammers and marketers". "Almost every search takes you to websites that want you to click on links that make them money," he complained on the blog Techcrunch, "or to sponsored sites that make Google money."
Last Thursday Google announced a technical tweak to address the first part of the problem. "This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites," it explained, singling out those pages which "copy content from other websites" or "are just not very useful". The move has been interpreted as an attempt to penalise outfits such as the Huffington Post, which rips material from other sources, and Demand Media, a battery farm for low-grade content. "Our goal is simple," said Google; "to give people the most relevant answers to their queries as quickly as possible."
Its goal isn't as simple as all that. Google's business depends on advertising. It fills its searches with sponsored links and links to its other services. Most of those services - YouTube, for instance - lose the company money. Their value is that they keep web-users on Google's turf, using Google's search engine, revealing their preferences and seeing Google's shrewdly personalised ads.
The strategy works. The company controls around 70 per cent of the global search market, giving it tremendous powers of patronage. This week the technology writer Andrew Keen became quite exercised about the way it uses its position to "cheat", edging rivals out of its search results and thereby extending its digital hegemony. He dismissed the most recent tweaks to the company's search algorithm as "cosmetic", insisting that "rather than spam, fairness is the key issue". Keen quoted a number of rival search companies, many of which are pursuing lawsuits against what they see as Google's monopolistic practices.
There are many reasons to be wary of Google. Its empire is far-reaching and powerful. Its motto may be "don't be evil", but its approach to user privacy comes uncomfortably close to what its CEO Eric Schmidt called the "creepy line". All the same, it's hard to see how anything could assure its preeminence except a superior product. Many web empires become more secure the larger they grow. Facebook, for example, can trade on the fact that more than half a billion people use it: what it sells is precisely a mediated connection between people. For the user of Google search, it doesn't matter how many other people are searching in the same way; all that matters is that they find what they want, quickly and painlessly. If Google forgets that, it invites a leaner, hungrier operation to come along with a better mousetrap. Something similar happened to Yahoo!, after all.