The Google dogs of our world have accomplished a lot in a short time. As Yahoo!, Ask, MSN, and Google approach their adolescence, is it time to evaluate where they fit in the world of libraries and how libraries can compete, complement, or cooperate? Is this an epic battle for the ages? Who will win and lose? Is that even the right question? It’s still our choice to set the battle lines, but not for long. There is a real and present danger to an over-Google-ized information landscape.
In this three part series, I will identify and explore the strengths and weaknesses of the Googles of the world (this issue, part 1); the real strengths and weaknesses of our world of libraries (October, part 2); and some of the key strategies that will militate towards our success in the changing world of our communities (November, part 3).
Let’s ask ourselves, in a clear-eyed, truthful way – what exactly are Google’s strengths and weaknesses? In the same way, what are ours? Our goal is to understand things well enough to differentiate ourselves from our competitors when necessary and to invest and build upon those differences. Copying success without differentiation is not a visionary strategy; it’s driving with your rear view mirror.
There are plenty of successful companies in the world. Some become icons. Once a company becomes an icon, people start invoking its name as if it were a mantra. Some are hated for their success. It’s not good at all to be unquestioning about the market success of a company. Right now, the halo effect surrounding Google is palpable. We should question where its success comes from, and also ask where that success is not in evidence, or is actually a clear failure or suboptimal effort.
What does Google do well?
1. Google is first and foremost an advertising company. By almost any measure, it’s one of the largest ad venues in the world. It has been so successful with its sponsored links that, according to Pew Research, most searchers cannot tell the difference between an ad and a regular link. Google manages their primary client base, advertisers of all sizes, adeptly.
2. Like most search engines, the rankings of the results, especially for links displayed on the first three pages, can be manipulated by SEO (search engine optimization) professionals. These SEO folks can be black hat or white hat. They serve their clients and can be motivated by a sincere desire to provide ads or links that are on point or, more cynically, they can be partisan political, lobbyist, or religious or special interest groups of all stripes who desire to manipulate the information available to the searching consumer.
3. Google excels at simple questions – those that begin with who, what, where and when. It delivers a satisfactory response to the simple questions that invade our days. They play on this satisfaction and downplay their poor results on the complicated questions of how and why.
4. Google does popularity ranking well. Is the popular answer always the best answer? Obviously not. There is an inherent conservatism in choosing to promote popularity over other links such as correctness, non-partisanship, current, or whatever. Newer, more innovative successes in medicine, for example, could be hurt by diffusion influenced by popularity.
5. You have to admit that Google has been very successful in getting its various toolbars downloaded into browsers ubiquitously. This will allow it to track user behaviors and grow its understanding of the eyes it seeks to deliver ads to.
6. Google does beta products very well. They release completed products and call them beta, and leave them in beta for a long time, often years. This deflects any real criticism because, after all, it’s only beta! Recently they released the Google Checkout without a beta. I guess folks just don’t feel safe giving their credit card information to a beta product!
7. Google’s algorithms work well with text. Text based Web sites and objects like PDF’s, spreadsheets and PowerPoints are findable and retrievable. While a few tricks are needed to search these formats, Google does a good job here. On other formats like pictures, video, MP3, and the like, Google is pulling up the rear in innovation here.
8. Google Scholar and College Life, powered by Google, are growing up quite quickly. Google is bringing these products into the mainstream of student life very fast. Recent Google initiatives around OpenURL linking with Scholar, library programs, and about citation analysis show they are truly making an effort here. They are wisely avoiding ad placements as they hook a generation of scholars and students. They must tread carefully as they build a product aimed at advertising to the younger generations who comprise the most desired sweet spot of advertising. Many of us remember Google BA (before ads).
9. Google does maps pretty well, and their recent integration of Google Local into Google Maps implies a broader strategy there. Of course, the stock market demands ever increasing revenues, so Google may use this locally oriented space as a component of a plan to attract ad market revenues where it currently underperforms - like classified, yellow page, real estate and local ads.
10. Lastly Google does blogs well. Maybe not as well as others, but the price is right. If they cleanly integrate some of the “beta” products around social networks, communities, Google Base, etc. there might be an interesting social space emerging here.
What does Google do poorly?
1. As I mentioned above, the important questions of life are the ones that start with “How” and “Why.” Popularity plays second fiddle to quality and narrative in the answers to these questions. There are fewer how and why questions. We rarely have dozens of these a day as we have “who, what, where, and when” questions. Google disguises its inadequacies in this area by the sheer weight of the other kinds of questions. Libraries excel at the collecting in those areas.
- Google does IM badly. It experiments. It tries. Google Talk isn’t totally awful. It’s just that this is an example of the difference in mindsets. If you’re serving up links to Web pages and ads, it is very difficult to also keep your mind focused on relationships and interpersonal conversations. If you subscribe to the Cluetrain Manifesto’s first two theses “Markets are conversations,” and that “Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.” You see the Achilles heel in Google’s armor.
3. As for the major trend towards social networking, as exemplified by such sites as MySpace and Facebook, Google isn’t even on the map, while these two sites eat their lunch in terms of attracting users to a stickier space. Coming from the fringes, both now take a huge share of Internet traffic, and MySpace is even entering the rankings as search competitor. This could all change if Google loosens the purse strings and acquires a major social site or pumps loads of cash into its Orkut social site, which is doing well in Brazil.
4. Google is behind the curve on e-commerce. That may change, but this is a very full space, and people trust Verisign and PayPal, which have significant relationships with key online and offline retailers. We need to watch this from the library point of view as more and more content is monetized and locked down with DRM.
5. Google still doesn’t do non-text well. That doesn’t mean they won’t go and improve this quickly through acquisition or development. The growing importance of audiobooks, tunes, podcasts, streaming media, video, etc. in the Web-based consumer markets is too big a trend for anyone, libraries and Google included, to ignore.
6. So far, Google does local (communities, neighborhoods, clubs, etc.) poorly. Libraries were pretty good at this space – so far good libraries have a handle on that local connection – physically and psychologically. Can this be sustained? If Google and its ilk start setting their landing pages to default to a local page (for example toronto.google.com) to dominate local advertising, will our local institutions, like newspapers, schools, and libraries, be ready?
Next month we explore what the strengths of libraries are – with possible open territories of unfulfilled needs to target. Can the library cat compete? Stay tuned.
Stephen Abram, MLS is Vice President, Innovation, for SirsiDynix. He is an SLA Fellow, president-elect of SLA, and the past president of the Ontario Library Association and the Canadian Library Association. Stephen would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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