Google’s Walled Garden Problem

Walled Garden

recursion_see_recursion / Flickr

[dropcap cap=”T”]here have been quite a few articles that I’ve read recently that have examined the precarious position that Google finds itself in.You might be asking yourself – Google in trouble? How’s that? They have the world’s most popular search engine, they can basically print money![/dropcap]

Despite all of those factors, Google, in the eyes of many observers, seems to be setting itself up for irrelevance in the face of a changing Internet.

Think about it for a moment. Do you spend more time in your day on Google, or Facebook? Do you find yourself using dedicated apps on your mobile device as opposed to visiting a company’s web site? Do you share sweet nothings with Siri?

Google has thrived with a disorganized, but open, Internet. In a system where anyone can set up a web site, or produce content, Google was an invaluable tool for sorting through the noise. That is, until people (mostly marketers and advertisers) figured out ways to drown search results with nothing BUT noise, and until Google realized it made more financial sense to them to drown search results with ads.


The erection of walled gardens – and apps

Facebook is home to over 800 million users. By and large, those users produce content that is either hardly visible or worse, totally invisible to Google’s search engine. There is a treasure trove of real-time status updates, notes, opinions, photos and links that Google is unable to catalog. But you know what’s even more devastating to Google? It’s the eyeballs taken away from Google sites and Google served advertisements.

It is one reason why PPC rates are declining (what Google can charge advertisers for prime placement on their search result pages) and why you are about to see even more ads throughout their web properties.

“When Google reported its results two weeks ago, the first headlines focused on the 25% increase in fourth quarter revenues compared to last year. Investors, however, focused on the drop in the cost per click that Google is able to charge advertisers. The main reasons for the decline in this all-important metric is increased competition from Facebook, Amazon, and Apple.”

Keith Woolcock, Time Magazine


But these so called “walled gardens” aren’t the only challenge that Google is facing.

They are also being assaulted in the mobile market by Apple and its iOS/apps ecosystem that by and large eschews the web for carefully polished/tailored app experiences on mobile phones and tablets.

Smart companies (hell, even individuals) have seen the writing on the wall on this one and jumped on the app making bandwagon. Perhaps John Battelle puts it best:

“The PC-based HTML web is hopelessly behind mobile in any number of ways. It has no eyes (camera), no ears (audio input), no sense of place (GPS/location data). Why would anyone want to invest in a web that’s deaf, dumb, blind, and stuck in one place?”

John Battelle


Why indeed? Just about everyone has a smartphone these days capable of running apps which provide all of the niceities that the PC based web lacks. Anecdotally, I spend so much more time on my iPhone than I do on my laptop it isn’t even funny. I’m willing to bet you do, too.

Of course, Google has an opportunity to advertise in these spaces as well. It has Android, a very popular mobile operating system that currently has the lead in market share for mobile operating systems. Problem is, Google really doesn’t have control over Android because it gives it away for free and allows carriers and device makers to significantly change Android to differentiate it on their networks and systems. The carriers themselves don’t do Google any favors by creating their own app stores, either. Everyone wants a piece of the app market it seems, except for Google. I wonder if they rue the decision to get in bed with the carriers as opposed to striking out on their own, like Apple did. Had they chose differently, maybe the transition to a more app-centric web would be easier for them.


And here, the post takes turn

Battelle and a few other bloggers who I respect and read, all seem to feel sorry for Google, or at least lament the end of the open web. But, despite my past history with Google (and their graciousness for allowing me to speak at their campus) I just can’t feel bad, or even remotely sorry for them during this dramatic shift in the way people consume the web. And, like any good hamburger joint which radically expands their menu to include burritos, wings, wraps and iced coffee – when you take your eye away from your core business long enough, things will start to slip.

First, the web has become a terribly messy place since Google came to town. If you despise SEO spam and computer generated content as much as I do, then you really ought to be glad to see Google’s influence wane a bit. Could they have built their search algorithm on a stronger foundation than link counting and keyword stuffing? I have to believe that they could. There are a lot of Stanford grads there, after all.

Then there are all of those ads. The experience of searching (and finding) with Google used to be a pleasure. Now you routinely find actual results well below the fold of the page, flanked by a legion of advertisements. Their page is cluttered with maps I didn’t ask for, images I don’t care about seeing and social media profiles I’m unfamiliar with. Just give me the results I am asking for!

I create web pages for a living. Let me just tell you how frustrating it is to invest blood, swear, tears and copious amounts of iced tea into a piece of content that is highly relevant and useful, only to be summarily ignored by Google because someone else is buying links, positive reviews or employing any number of other nefarious black hat SEO techniques. I still believe that investing in content is the most worthwhile thing one can do to have success through search. I just wish that Google would show more evidence that they still believe that too.

Let me compete with other sites on the merit of my words, the quality of my product and the delivery of a user experience — not just the density of keywords and whether I conned my way into a link from a .edu domain.

Google achieved cult status in the early days based on their stewardship of the open web. If they lose their dominant position now, it will also be due to their stewardship of the open web. I don’t weep for the open web as it pertains to walled gardens. I weep for what the open has become since Google started to care about about advertising and less about matching users with the best, most relevant content.