Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The other reason for Google+

I'll start this one with admission; I like and use a lot of Google's products. I've got an Android phone, have been singing the praises of Google+, Google's my default search engine and GMail is fantastic.

Like US
antitrust regulators though, I'm starting to wonder if Google might have too much power. If Microsoft had a case to answer in the way that Explorer was been bundled with Windows, then wouldn't Google have similar issues with the increasing integration between its products?

Google has a large suite of products, despite recently closing down
Labs and many of them are tied very closely to its search engine.

Search Google for any term that could reasonably return a map and you'll get a map included in the results. A Google map, naturally.

That's fair enough; I was looking for Leeds and Google fetched me a map of Leeds. Maps can probably be included in a legitimate list of the things I might have wanted. Unless you really want to get picky (and if you're
Streetmap, then you probably do,) all Google's really doing is returning a graphical result rather than a text based one.

The trouble with this type of justification, is that you can push it into almost any sphere that the web touches. And the web now touches virtually every part of our lives. If I want to do
anything then you can say that I'm looking to do it. Which means I'm searching for it. Which means it's a legitimate product for Google to develop and cross promote from its search engine.

This is exactly the argument that Eric Schmidt is
pushing with regulators in the US.

"[W]hat is crucial to understand is that universal search results are not separate 'products and services' from Google.

Rather, the incorporation of thematic and conventional results in universal search reflects Google’s effort to connect users to the information that is most responsive to their queries.

Because of this, the question of whether we 'favor' our 'products and services' is based on an inaccurate premise.

These universal search results are our search service — they are not some separate 'Google content' that can be 'favored'."
(Eric Schmidt. Quote borrowed from The Register)

Google's search market share in the UK is over 90% according to Hitwise. That's a hell of a lot of potential abuse of a dominant market position. I'm not saying that Google is abusing its position - the legal work on my house move is costing quite enough - but if everything Google builds can be integrated into search because it's all one product, then where do you stop? Taking a broad definition of the term, virtually everything starts with a search.

If want to know about a location then I need a map, Google has maps so Google directs me to its own maps.

If I need a flight, Google has a new flights product, so I can be sent there rather than to Skyscanner.

If I'd like to call someone, Google has phones and voice and video chat.

It's difficult to think of any service-based category that Google couldn't decide to enter, develop its own product, cross-promote it from search and use that same Eric Schmidt argument as a justification. Google Legal? Google Estate Agents? Music? News? Why not? You're searching for information and content.

As much as I like Google+, I missed one of its primary benefits to Google the first time around and it only became clear when the black product bar arrived, that now sits on top of just about all Google products.

By closely integrating their product offer - essentially by making it all one product - Google are playing the same game that Microsoft tried to play with Internet Explorer. Compare Schmidt's argument above, with this Microsoft justification for bundling Internet Explorer with Windows.

"Microsoft stated that the merging of Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer was the result of innovation and competition, that the two were now the same product and were inextricably linked together and that consumers were now getting all the benefits of IE for free"
(Wikipedia link)

Sound familiar?

Microsoft ended up in a compromise with regulators, that was likely a much better outcome for them than if they'd just stubbornly refused to un-bundle Explorer from Windows.

Google seem to be playing the same strategy: Integrate your products so closely that you can argue they're not actually separate products at all. In that context, Google+ needs to be a window onto everything that Google does. It also explains why you'd ruthlessly kill off Labs, which might otherwise be cited as hosting examples of off-shoot products that have nothing to do with search.

Google won't get away from an antitrust investigation completely unscathed but it seems to be a good strategy to ape Microsoft and try to avoid a ruling that's heavily weighted against what they want to do as a business.

For their part, US regulators need to recognise Google+ for what it is: not just an aggressive move into social, but a very clever defensive move to counter a future antitrust ruling.

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