Quit Trying to Be the Next Google, Dammit!

Earlier this month I read an interesting article in ScienceNOW. It was about how people can recognize how they have changed in the past, but are less good at recognizing how they will change in the future. “Gilbert and colleagues call this effect ‘the end of history illusion,’ because it suggests that people believe, consciously or not, that the present marks the point at which they’ve finally stopped changing.”

I thought this was interesting because it’s a huge blind spot in one’s development as a person and may explain why it’s so hard for people to enact radical change on themselves (and it may also give some hints on how it could become easier to do so.) I also think it may explain how people see current companies and technology.

I thought of this study yesterday when I read an article on Mashable called Free Database of the Entire Web May Spawn the Next Google. It was an overview of a new non-profit that’s making a huge bucket of Web data that people can splash around in. This is great, but not new (ODP data was being used for the same purpose by sites like Oingo, and that was over a dozen years ago) and I found the idea that this might bring about “the next Google” to be as galling as it ever is. Only this time I’m going to write about it because I can’t stand it any longer.

Seventeen years ago this spring I wrote my first book on Internet and search engines. I have been reading and writing about search engines and finding things online ever since. And I would like to bring all this experience to bear and disclose something to you:

One day Google is going to suck.

This is not disrespect. It’s history. The more successful Google gets, the bigger it gets. The bigger it gets, the slower it moves. The slower it moves, the more difficulty it has in responding to rapid changes of technology. The more difficulty.. you get the idea. The very fact of a company’s existence and the requirements heaped on it from all sides — from the government, shareholders, customers, employees — eventually coats it in layers of bullshit that have nothing to do with mission and innovation and everything to do with placating someone or other. The more success, the more of that there is. Bureaucratic barnacles.

Because we are always in the present, we can’t imagine the Internet without our right-now-essential tools. But eventually they will not be essential. Eventually the Internet will change enough that they will take a more minor role, specialize to the point that they appeal to a much smaller audience, or deprecate entirely.

HotBot? AltaVista? The Open Directory Project? All once hailed as great innovations, hugely useful, where-would-we-be-without-them, tools of the Internet. And now they all pretty much suck. (Though some people involved, like Rich Skrenta (ODP) and his search engine blekko, have moved on to greater things.)

I’m not saying that tomorrow Google is going to start sucking, and I’m not saying it sucks now. It doesn’t. I’m saying that it can’t be what it is indefinitely no matter how unstoppable and monolithic it looks now. And I’m saying that if you start off trying to “be the next Google,” you are setting yourself up for failure.

There are so many problems of discovery and usage on the Internet that have nothing to do with what Google does right, right now. Searching for podcasts is a pointless nightmare. It’s still hard to find and use “deep Web” resources like those which are found within library catalogs and online exhibits. Natural language searching has gone from being difficult and odd (but somewhat useful) to, in my experience, misunderstanding what I actually want. Special character searching is still a niche for engines like SymbolHound. Translation tools, while better, are still pretty bad. The only Twitter viewing/monitoring tool I can find that doesn’t make me want to punch a wall in frustration is Undrip.

Here’s my point: now matter how pervasive Google is, no matter how unshakable it looks, there are still issues with the way the Internet and the Web work. There are still structures to be invented and innovations to be made. And that will be true forever.

For your success, scratch what makes you itch. Look at the Web/Internet/whatever, see what pisses you off, and address that. Take Common Crawl’s excellent offerings and makes your job easier. (Now I’m wondering what Wikia is doing with Grub.) What you do may overlap Google’s endeavors or it may not. But it seems to me you will be much more successful with that approach than by trying to replicate the success of what came before.

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5 replies »

  1. Excellent post, Tara. So whatever happened to Internet 2.0, which was touted a few years ago. It was supposed to be the one that was separated from all of the riffraff?

    • Jeff, “Internet 2.0” was never more than a marketing play…some people tried to shove through “Internet 3.0” but gladly that attempt was strangled at the source.

      Of course we got “the cloud” and “big data” instead…

  2. Wow, Tara, way to go! One of your best posts ever if not THE best. I’m sure many of your readers have no idea what HotBot, Alta Vista or OD were…

    I absolutely agree, Google won’t last forever – even The Roman Empire didn’t…and it definitely won’t be the best forever…ibid Facebook or Twitter or any of the other current Internet gorillas.

    Superb post, thanks for that.


  3. Tara: This is one of *the* most thoughtful, insightful comments I’ve read on future Web development in a long, long time. Thank you for the perspective–and the push to do more.

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