Those Hooves? That's the Sound of the Internet Search Apocalypse

Search Has Become a Utility Too Big for One Company, Too Vital for Self-Regulation

By Published on .

Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan
Internet search's Four Horsemen are coming. The world may not be coming to an end, but how we search is changing before our eyes. And not for the better.

In the narrow span of a few days, Microsoft and Yahoo solidified their relationship, Xerox filed suit against Yahoo and Google, and the European Union opened the American equivalent of an antitrust investigation with an interest in Google. One more thing: Google has been granted permission to sell power as a public utility by the American Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

These events combine to paint a potentially scary picture and lay the foundation for the untimely and painfully slow death of search innovation. It's a history-defining time. True editorial search advancement is ending. Making money -- despite claims of interest in the public good -- always supersedes supposedly altruistic intentions.

Horseman One: History's ghost
Today the old document company Xerox is suing the new document company Google, while that new document company is at war with Yahoo and Microsoft while building a space program and planning to sell electricity.

One thousand years from today (if man survives) Google will be deep in the annals of history as the company that revolutionized information consumption. Microsoft will be remembered as the company that powered computers until its ultimate demise following the purchase of Yahoo in 2016. Yahoo, the company, will be forgotten, and the word "yahoo" will return to its Princeton definition of "a person who is not very intelligent or interested in culture." All because history is written by the winners and thus not always an accurate account of the wars waged, battles fought and generations lost.

Horseman Two: Nature's nature
Utilities are restricted from private enterprise in most places but the United States. That's because utilities are natural monopolies, and the greater good is served by keeping service access on a level playing field. The case for regulation was built around an understanding that competing interests or systems are prohibitively expensive, and the public is better served by government control. We don't have government control anymore, just oversight.

Government supervision is where everything starts to get complicated. Telephone companies, public and mass transportation, along with services like a postal system have all been removed from government control in the United States. We are likely to remain alone in this practice based in no small part due to the triumphs of our airline industry and telecom's efficient and useful deregulation. Of course, who could forget the amazing Enron success story?

Here's what the assembled mass will look like in the post-2012 internet world. The act of searching and finding from a non-commercial perspective will be regulated, and guidelines for ranking and inclusion will be homogenized much in the same way as our telecommunications industry. A few lessons will be learned from the regulation-deregulation-reregulation scenario of the telecom industry, but it's going to be different.

Horseman 3: The Human condition
Self-regulation is a joke. Period. Humanity has proven consistently that self-regulation is not a possibility. Leaving aside the aforementioned train wrecks in utilities and mass transit, the internet, with all its good intentions, represents the worst elements of the human condition.

We began by violating privacy, filing for patent after patent that ultimately had to be stricken down due to privacy regulations. One need only take a close look at some of the early patents filed by internet service providers and where those patents stand today. We continued by proving that, if one person can build it, several others can hack and exploit it with their own ill-begotten means. We rounded off with Google's "Do No Evil" clause that has become a nauseating cliché and textbook contradiction in terms of ideals and commercial needs.

How many times did your Twitter account get hacked last week? Any flagged suspicious activity in your online advertising accounts? Even Google's algorithmic popularity-based ranking system for websites can be manipulated with copious amounts for cash-for-hire entrepreneurs. When link- based ranking systems were introduced, the first thing we learned to do was influence them for our own benefit. In spite of Google's noble efforts to maintain the integrity of these systems, the hacker mentality of "do it because it's there" or "do it because I can make money with it" often wins.

Horseman 4: Lobbyist litigation
Forget privacy discussions. Privacy in advertising will be resolved in committee, and when true targeting and profiling systems used in traditional and digital media come to light, there will be plenty of politicians willing to carry that cross to garner favor in the eyes of the consuming public.

No, here we are talking about one company's control of access to the world's information consumption via the internet. Who decides which information site is best for cancer treatment? The deep-pocketed search engine manipulators in the pharmaceutical category? The company that lives up to its own constantly evolving definition of evil? Does "not evil" include cutting a sweetheart deal with NASA to land private jets on its airfield to shorten the commute to the Googleplex?

Marketer's complain (that's what they do) incessantly about Google's restrictive policies in the advertising world. Few will say anything in public for fear of reprisals. Search competitors are hiring the best public relations firms, litigators and lobbyists in the world to help win the fight, but they're heading to the wrong battlefield.

Millions are being spent on litigation and currying favor with politicians because it is in our nature to protect our own interests. The species has not yet evolved to the point where we can regulate sans conflicting self interest. We need a virtual parent figure to protect us from ourselves. The utility that editorial or natural search has become is omnipresent, and Google can be thanked for that in no small part.

Let Google sell power, it certainly has enough to spare. Let them all argue over who should have rights to targeting information on ad platforms. The advertising world will sort itself out in the usual and predictable human way.

How we consume information can no longer be left in the hands of unsupervised private enterprise whose only measure of success is generating revenue. Now is the time to recognize that what has been created in the internet search utility is bigger than any one company, and accept the modern consequences so that history can acknowledge the amazing gift that has been given to the world. While adhocracy has failed, proactively seeking a solution and building a truly public information access point will be the key to avoiding a bureaucratic nightmare.

Kevin M. Ryan is CEO of the strategic consulting and project management firm Motivity Marketing. He tweets at @KevinMRyan.
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