Those looking for clues to Google’s search demise are asking the wrong question

google-search.jpg


google-search.jpg
Image: warmworld/Adobe Stock

’Tis the season for wishful thinking about toppling Google’s search business, I guess, because over the past week several sources have popped up to ask, “Why isn’t there a Google competitor emerging?” The answer, of course, is that there is a viable competitor to Google. As I’ve written, DuckDuckGo has been booming of late, though its “booming” hasn’t translated to “bust” for Google. Far from it. By any measure (like StatCounter’s), Google dominates search on the Internet.

SEE: Google Workspace vs. Microsoft 365: A side-by-side analysis w/checklist (TechRepublic Premium)

Yet people feel compelled to ask, “If Google sucks then why is everyone still using it?” The answer to that, dear reader, has implications well beyond Google, or search, and has everything to do with convenience.

If it ain’t broke …

By some accounts, Google search has somehow deteriorated in quality. Never mind that “quality” will always be somewhat subjective. In the article linked above, Daniel Gross tries to parse how users are apparently adding search modifiers now to make Google search results more relevant. (As an example, I sometimes add the “-” modifier to tell Google I don’t want results on Banbury Cross, the place made famous in a nursery rhyme, and instead just want results on Banbury Cross, the best doughnut shop in Utah.)

Gross and others think that modifying Google’s search for different sites like Reddit offers clues to users wanting more specific search that helps them answer more complex, “long tail” queries. “Something’s broken, and a tiny share of Google is open for the taking,” he wrote. A “tiny share” of Google is, of course, worth a lot of money, as DuckDuckGo has discovered. But it’s still not pointing to a big problem in little searches.

Similarly, other commentators suggest that “People are increasingly asking the questions that really matter in their Facebook and WhatsApp groups, Twitter, Discord and Slack communities, etc.” But then they resolve their question (“If Google sucks then why is everyone still using it?”) by pointing out Google delivers on the bulk of search queries: “It does not matter that results are bad in the ‘tail’ (complex but rare queries) because it makes for a small percent of total queries, and most users form search habits based on head queries, which Google is exceedingly good at.”

As for those modifiers (like searching a specific site), some note that “Despite the fact that 90% of my searches for ‘WTF does this stacktrace mean?’ end up on StackOverflow, I invariably start my search on Google because every now and then it gives me useful non-StackOverflow tidbits, and I know I can always drill in more with specific tags on StackOverflow later.” It doesn’t help that Google’s search of such specific sites is generally better than the site’s own search.

All of which starts to feel like people are searching for answers to a question that has been answered for years: Why do people persist in using Google (or some other product)? Because it’s good enough (and convenient). Ah, convenience. Redmonk’s James Governor once declared that “Convenience is the killer app.” He was right then. He’s right now.

… then don’t fix it

If your question is “If Product/Service X is bad so why does everyone use it?,” it’s arguably a bad question. The question should really be “Why does everyone use X?” There may be all sorts of reasons that you wish they wouldn’t, but good answers don’t emerge from wish fulfillment.

Take open source, for example.

I’ve worked in open source since 2000, when I joined an open source software startup, Lineo. Getting into open source wasn’t a conscious decision of mine (it was a serendipitous summer internship that has lasted 22 years), but staying in it has been. During this time, it has seemed obvious to me that customers would want to choose open source alternatives to Microsoft, Oracle, and [insert name of big proprietary incumbent]. Microsoft Office? Yep, I’ve raged against that machine. Ditto Windows, Oracle databases, etc.

SEE: Top keyboard shortcuts you need to know (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

And yet, billions of dollars later, people still happily use Office, still run Windows, still use Oracle, etc. Even AWS, which had strong technical (and marketing) reasons for moving off Oracle, spent over a decade trying to get off (and finally succeeded). Why? Because it was inconvenient to move.

Which is why profound, industry-wide changes sometimes start with small choices made by individual developers. Those changes may not upend decades of Office adoption, for example, but they can create new patterns of convenience. (I and others prefer using cloud-based Google Docs, for example, as my office productivity suite.) Similarly, Microsoft still prints billions from its Windows Server business, but developer demand for Linux has prompted it to offer Linux on its Azure cloud service. Will this spell the death of Windows that I once thought imminent? Probably not, because it will remain convenient for many organizations to keep running Windows, perhaps for decades.

Which may ultimately answer those original questions about Google and search. Those looking to topple Google will almost certainly fail. Markets are rarely won by head-on collisions between opposing forces. Convenience militates against such confrontations. But will new patterns of convenience emerge that siphon away search energy toward different platforms, perhaps in ways that don’t sound like “search” at all? Perhaps.

Put through an enterprise software lens, years ago I could have saved myself some righteous indignation at the persistence of legacy technologies by instead noticing new patterns of developer convenience. Such patterns clearly showed developer desire for more autonomy, which led to open source and cloud. In the process, a process that has taken decades, they have dramatically changed how we buy software, and from whom. Here’s to decades more of the same.

Disclosure: I work for MongoDB but the views expressed herein are mine.



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