The Mall Wide Web

Let’s start by asking this question:

Is Google becoming the world’s biggest SEO company?

That question popped into my mind after reading The Google Algorithm, an editorial in Wednesday’s New York Times. It begins,

Google handles nearly two-thirds of Internet search queries worldwide. Analysts reckon that most Web sites rely on the search engine for half of their traffic. When Google engineers tweak its supersecret algorithm — as they do hundreds of times a year — they can break the business of a Web site that is pushed down the rankings.

— and then goes on about the company’s “pecuniary incentives to favor its own over rivals” and how “the potential impact of Google’s algorithm on the Internet economy is such that it is worth exploring ways to ensure that the editorial policy guiding Google’s tweaks is solely intended to improve the quality of the results and not to help Google’s other businesses.”

The framing here is business. That is, the Times is wringing its  hands about Google’s influence over businesses on the Web. That’s fine, but is business all the Web is about? Is the “Internet economy” limited to businesses with Web sites? Is it limited to the Web at all? What about email and all the other stuff supported by Internet protocols? Have the Internet and the Web, both creations of non-commercial entities and purposes, turned entirely into commercial places? The Times seems to think so.

Google’s dominance of the search business is an interesting problem, but it’s also something of a red herring. Seems to me the bigger problem is what the search business — which consists entirely of advertising — is doing to the Web.

Ever since Google invented AdSense, making it possible for advertising to appear on websites of all kinds, there has been a rush to riches, or at least toward making a few bucks, by grabbing some of that click-through money. That’s what SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is mostly about. As a result the number of websites that exist mostly — or entirely — to make advertising money, has grown. I’ve been looking for numbers on this and can’t find any, but I’ll bet that the non-commercial slice of the Web’s total pie has been shrinking, and the portion paid for by advertising (or just looking to make money on advertising) has been growing.

Thus it makes sense that Google will care more about that growing slice of the Web’s pie, and less about the non-commercial stuff. I’m not saying that’s the case. It just seems to me that the Web is more about advertising than ever, and a lot more of that gets in the way of what we might be looking for — especially if what we want isn’t advertised.

So that’s one thing. Here’s another: Adam Rifkin‘s Pandas and Lobsters: Why Google Cannot Build Social Applications. Very insightful and interesting piece. Not sure I agree with all of it, but it does make me think — about malls.

Remember back when e-commerce was new, in the mid-90s? Seemed like all the big guys and wannabes wanted to build malls on the Web. It was wacky, because the Web isn’t a farm on the edge of town that you can pave and put a bunch of stores on. It’s a wide open space. But an interesting thing has happened here, fifteen years later. “Social” sites are malls. They’re places people go to hang out and buy stuff. They’re enclosed, separate. Big and accomodating. Fun to be in. But private. Here’s a long quote from Adam:

Facebook is a lobster trap and your friends are the bait. On social networks we are all lobsters, and lobsters just wanna have fun. Every time a friend shares a status, a link, a like, a comment, or a photo, Facebook has more bait to lure me back. Facebook is literally filled with master baiters: Whenever I return to Facebook I am barraged with information about many friends, to encourage me to stick around and click around. Every time I react with a like or comment, or put a piece of content in, I’m serving as Facebook bait myself. Facebook keeps our friends as hostages, so although we can check out of Hotel Facebook any time we like, we can never leave. So we linger. And we lurk. And we luxuriate. The illogical extreme of content-as-bait are the Facebook games where the content is virtual bullshit. Social apps are lobster traps; Google apps do not bait users with their friends.

Quora is restaurant that serves huge quantities of bacn and toast. Quora is a dozen people running dozens of experiments in how to optimally use bacn to get people to return to Quora, and how to use toast to keep them there. Bacn is email you want but not right now, and Quora has 40 flavors of it that you can order. Quora’s main use of Bacn is to sizzle with something delicious (a new answer to a question you follow, a new Facebook friend has been caught in the Quora lobster trap, etc.) to entice you to come back to Quora. Then, once you’re there, the toast starts popping. Quora shifts the content to things you care about and hides things you don’t care about in real-time, and subtly pops up notifications while you’re playing, to entice you to keep sticking around and clicking around. Some toast is so subtle it doesn’t even look like a pop-up notification — it just looks like a link embedded in the page with some breadcrumbs that appear in real-time to take you to some place on Quora it knows you’ll find irresistible. For every user’s action, bacn’s and toast’s fly out to others in search of reactions. (Aside: if I were Twitter, I would be worried. Real-time user interfaces are more addictive than pseudo-real-time interfaces; what if Quora took all of its technology and decided to use it to build a better Twitter?) Social apps are action-reaction interaction loops; Google apps are designed just for action.

I really don’t care that Google sucks at social apps (if that’s true, and I’m not sure it is… not totally, anyway). What I care about is that all this social stuff happens in private spaces. Maybe there’s a better metaphor than malls, but I can’t think of one.

Oh, and how do these malls make their money? Advertising. Not entirely, but to a large extent.

The problem with that is what it has always been. Advertising is guesswork, and most advertising is wasted, even when advertisers only pay for click-throughs. The misses far outnumber the hits, and that’s a lot of waste — of server cycles, of bandwidth, of time, of pixels, and of rods and cones in the backs of our eyes. Ad folks calls the misses “impressions,” but who’s impressed?

It helps to remember what the Web  was in the first place — and what the Web is still for. Nobody has ever explained that better than David Weinberger, in a Cluetrain Manifesto chapter called The Longing. David wrote that in 1999. Like other fine antiques, it only gets more valuable with age. And with the degree to which modern forms depart from old and better ideals.

[Later…] There’s always a bigger picture, of course. I love this one from Ethan Zuckerman, whose has been spreading my horizons for a long time and keeps getting batter at it.


  1. Bertil Hatt’s avatar

    I guess you could crawl a sample (especially if you can convince a Googler to spend his 20% on that) and tell what portion of pages on-line have ads on them —or rather weight them by readership, or character count as a measure of time spent by writers. I’d be a crude measure, but an interesting one to see evolve, and most likely one Quality control surveil to notice spam networks. You would need to tweak it with data from Facebook recently, though.

    I’m not sure if this is a right measure, but the time I spend online, measured by a approximate salary is far more than the money I spend on online, and ads only justify the margins on those sales. I’m barely convinced to buy off-line from on-line ads yet, but it will come soon (and will probably be a mana).

  2. Brian Hayashi’s avatar

    After being a part of the company that helped launch both Netscape and @Home, I started a company in 1997 that syndicated retail content to over 240 of the nation’s largest and most prestigious malls, from Manhattan to Beverly Hills. I was waaaaaay early, but the company I founded still exists today and thousands of meetings with retailers and property managers has given me a somewhat unique perspective on your musings.

    Malls had a unique, desirable perspective because they could see receipt data for each tenant and use that data to identify hot new concepts and provide distribution in exchange for rent and a percent of sales.

    About twelve years ago, malls lost this position to organizations like Google, who used search as a great big facade to collect a then-unimaginable data store that could predict what people wanted. Google stayed with search, and in doing so, became the PBS of the New World Order. Meantime, Facebook, Twitter and all the others saw the same thing, but tried to find new ways to engage the consumer with bacn and toast but collect even better information. To my way of thinking, I see these new guys as angling to become the new ABC/NBC/CBSs. Like episodic television, these guys are finding ways to incubate pop culture concepts to see which will resonate with both audience and commercial interests.

    To my way of thinking, the Internet is the Pac-Man power pill given form in the Real World. In the videogame, the power pill enabled the protagonist to turn the tables on his competitors. It did not turn him into a spaceship, an ape, or a plumber, or anything else he wasn’t. Like the power pill, using the Internet in a new and novel way only confers a temporary advantage, training us to use the Internet as the best way to find the next source of competitive advantage. As Bill Gurley has pointed out elsewhere, Google’s secret sauce all but guarantees that any SEO implementation will likewise confer a temporary advantage at best.

  3. Stephen Hamilton’s avatar

    Thanks for the link through to Ethan’s article. It was a very interesting flip side to the ‘bizweb’ I often get plugged into. Worth remembering.

  4. Sheila Lennon’s avatar

    It’s good that so many of us are still writing this sort of thing, Doc. (I know we both hate the word “content,” but if the Web’s a market, content is a synonym for bait.):

    Earlier this week I wrote (A primer on social networks for those who probably don’t care🙂

    Facebook is an interface to manage, store and display what its users put there. Members reveal mostly real names, their interests, biography, demography and who they know: They invite others who will also provide a steady exchange of new “content” to this business — text, photos, video, affinities and ads. Their interactions drive the business model: Customers create the pages that deliver their friends’ eyeballs to advertisers.

    Creating valuable content is expensive, but seeing pictures of your friends’ kids is priceless.

    Over at PopMatters, a marketing cynic takes down Clay Shirky’s “idealism” about the Web: “The Internet is a battlefield, not an altruistic orgy of “creating and sharing”, as Shirky puts it. The war is over eyeballs and eventually wallets.”


  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Hey, Sheila. Like the primer.

    As for the PopMatter matter, the writer’s criticism is no less shallow and opinionated than he claims about Clay’s work — with a helluva lot more name-calling.

    Hey, even if he’s right about Clay’s book, (and i dunno, cuz I haven’t read it yet), at least Clay’s puts in some thought, effort and scholarship. A lot, in fact. It’s his job.

    Calling the Internet (or anything) a battlefield could hardly be more shallow and trite.

  6. Sherrie N’s avatar

    Hi Doc,

    Is it finally time to graduate the Wild Westnet to a bit of law and order–with jurisdiction perhaps where the user is? Or maybe spread out in a way similar to the Federal US court system but perhaps in globally distributed courts? I have used the net to learn, teach, shop, communicate and more than once shape legal events yet the randomness of it, the concept of it somehow being “free” and even the promise that it will magically create its own community of all good folks have always been things I recognize as rather out of touch with reality. You seem to share this understanding.

    Frederic Gregory, USAF retired, astronaut says that from space there are no arbitrary lines on the planet identifying “us” and “them”–that too is reality. It seems time to connect the global thinking to the global reality and if it requires a shift in commercail production, consumption, energy use and legal structure I cannot think of anyone better than you to start the conversation. New ways to value and monetize time may be a place to start. I do not want an algorithm, no matter how carefully tweaked managing real knowledge, do you? If the laws and finances change we can open doors now closed since we all do share the same world–really.

    Global passports may be worth discussing as well. Who do you know in the UN?

    Thanks for the link to Ethan btw–excellent as always.

  7. Mirek Sopek’s avatar


    To me, the way both Google and Facebook are evolving, is the sign of the bad direction. Both of them have centralized the domains they are strong at (Google — search, FB — Social Networks). I sometimes just cannot comprehend how could it happen in the Free World?

    Of course, FaceBook is a lobstar trap, of course Google can bring a legitimate business down in days — what is that wrong we have made to allow for such situation?

    Is there any way, any strategy to restore the founding ideas of the Web?
    The ideas of non-centralized, distributed, equal and unmanaged space?

  8. Jay H.’s avatar

    One could well spend some time studying “advertising” — what works, what doesn’t work, and how does one tell whether it works or doesn’t work. What are the elements of an effective advertising strategy for a given product or service. Big topic with a lot of history, but still in its infancy on the web. Maybe still in the womb. And then there’s “the power of suggestion” on the web, which has some advertising import, true, but goes far beyond that.

  9. dinariraqi’s avatar

    For this PopMatter matter, the writer’s criticism is no fewer low and blinkered than he claim about Clay’s work — with a helluva lot added name-calling.
    Iraqi Dinar

  10. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Mike, there are days I’m optimistic and days I’m not. On the optimistic days I think what we need to do is make clear how the agnostic and supportive protocols that define and enable the Web are understood for what they are and the roles they play. On the pessimistic days I think the phone and cable companies — along with their mentalities — will win.

    Working for the former, though.

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