Imagining Google's future: Google is dead
Here's scenario 3 (circa 2025): The once-mighty search engine falls prey to privacy intrusion, optimizers, and Microsoft.
It was 15 years ago, when Google was in its ascendancy, that the seeds of its decline were sown. Not only did the company's 2005 deal with AOL introduce unpopular graphics-heavy banner ads onto what had formerly been a spartan search site, but that was the year that search engine optimizers, or SEOs, became a nuisance.1 Optimizers could, for a fee, tweak how important your website appeared to Google's PageRank engine by, say, hijacking the homepage of a major university and adding a link to your site.
Despite a titanic struggle between Google's top technologists and the SEOs, within years many of the popular search results were clogged with irrelevant (and barely literate) commercial and porn sites. Meanwhile, virtually no one attempted to optimize results on Microsoft's MSN search, which had room to improve far beneath the SEOs' radar.
When the quality of search slipped, so did Google's advertising business. The market for online ads turned out to be far softer than anyone -- except Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer -- had predicted. Ballmer's smartest move, in 2008, was to buy a company called Snap.com. On Google, an advertiser paid anytime a user clicked on its ad. With Snap, the advertiser paid only if the user did something useful after clicking, like buying a product or filling out a survey.2
Google soldiered on, continuing to tweak PageRank and doubling down on its long-term bets. The strategy might have worked, if not for a disgruntled, psychotic former employee who hacked the company intranet and began stalking women in the San Francisco Bay Area using information about their habits gleaned from their Google IDs.3 After the stalker was convicted in 2017, his victims sued Google. The case made headlines around the world.
The next month, privacy advocates and civil liberties groups that had been complaining about Gmail's intrusive data gathering since 20044 finally got a hearing -- in front of Congress. Then the Justice Department opened twin-track Google investigations: one into antitrust violations, the other into older allegations of click fraud (in which unscrupulous competitors create programs to click on ads repeatedly and cost an advertiser more money).5
Overnight, Google's carefully crafted "do no evil" image had become irrevocably tarnished. Microsoft, itself the reviled monopolist before Google's ascendancy, was now ironically viewed as the more trustworthy company. MSN came to be seen as the better search engine, and Microsoft ads as the better bet for getting a message across. Attempts to open new lines of business in genome-tailored drugs and protein manufacturing could not save the Google brand.
This year the search engine firm, whose brain trust has long since fled, was acquired by Microsoft. The sale price of $25 per share was less than 5 percent of Google's historical high, yet was described by analysts as "extremely generous," given Google's crushing $50 billion in debt. Since most of the company's assets had already been auctioned off, many believe its Redmond rival was motivated by sheer historical schadenfreude.
Footnotes: 1) "Hotwiring Your Search Engine," Newsweek, Dec. 19, 2005. 2) "Snap.com Plans to Combat Click Fraud," Associated Press online, July 19, 2005. 3) "Only in the Movies? A Privacy Scenario," John Battelle's Searchblog, Dec. 3, 2005. 4) April 2004 protest letter to Google from more than 30 leading privacy advocates, requesting that Gmail be shut down, www.privacyrights.org/ar/GmailLetter.htm#letter. 5) Click Defense lawsuit against Google in June 2005 over allegations of click fraud.
Next: Scenario 4: Google is God