The trouble with social, and the opportunity for Google
Google has entered another one of its periods of languishment. Back in 2007, the company's stock reached $358 a share, then needed another five years to exceed that peak. Once it did, Google rallied 71 percent over the next 18 months, rising as high as $614 a share early last year. Since then, Google has drifted sideways to down. It's trading around $575, after falling below $500 earlier this year.
The key problem is a familiar one. Our collective attention is being drawn away from the Google search box, thanks to social networks and mobile apps. Facebook is the main culprit here, suctioning off a more ad dollars each year. But also Xiaomi and others are making forked versions of Android, which don't employ Google's services. So while Android becomes more ubiquitous, it will be harder for Google to generate ad revenue from it.
The bright spots for Google seems to have dimmed recently. YouTube, a wildly popular platform, is struggling to break even, but the more troubling thing is the rason why. As the Wall Street Journal noted, “Most YouTube users treat the site as a video repository to be accessed from links or embedded video players posted elsewhere, rather than visiting YouTube.com daily.” The key word there is “elsewhere.” The harder Google tries, the more our attention strays somewhere else.
It's a familiar dynamic. Early on, as content on the Web mushroomed, Google made its fortune on a search engine that filtered the noise out of the signal. The noise crept back in as web sites tried to game its algorithms with search optimization tricks. Around this time, Facebook built a better filter with its social news feeds. Search was displaced by discovery as the way people found the content they wanted – or, as Chris Dixon has put it, the era of pull gave way to the era of push.
But there are reasons to think that the whole push/discovery model is itself approaching a point of diminishing returns. Just as search-engine optimization left Google struggling to keep its noise filters useful, the rise of clickbait content has been forcing Facebook to tweak its own algorithms. The trouble with filters is there is an inherent tension between their potential to provide real information and their vulnerability to be manipulated by outsiders.
If anything, clickbait is more pernicious than gaming search results because it's directed at hacking the emotional responses wired into users. Readers quickly grow wise to the tricks, but then the tricks change and the end result is the same: disappointment and dissatisfying content. After a few years, discovery fatigue sets in. We become cynical about our friends' abilities to share content, and this is kind of depressing after a while. People we love talking to face to face somehow become untrustworthy arbiters of what is worth paying attention to, especially when it can take 30-plus seconds to upload to our phones.
None of this is slowing Facebook's growth. The impulse to connect with friends online in a non-public environment is strong enough that, no matter how loud the grumbling grows, 890 million of us fire up Facebook every day. It's the lock in – the absence of any large-scale competitor – that keeps Facebook thriving, not the improving quality of its information filters. If anything, the filters are growing weaker over time.
But Facebook's success doesn't mean Google and others don't have opportunities. Yes, as many as 2 million advertisers are flocking to Facebook, but all are competing for the same number of ad slots on user feeds. The supply-demand balance is terrific for Facebook, less so for advertisers. But that imbalance is an opportunity in the making for Facebook's rivals in the online ad market.
And yes, it may also be true that people in emerging economies like Indonesia may consider Facebook the equivalent of the Internet. But that was also true of AOL 20 years ago, when the online service was a gateway drug for millions of people who later ventured further once they realized there was more compelling content on the web at large. In time, the same dynamic may play out in the countries where Facebook is growing the fastest today.
For those of us who have been on Facebook for several years, the whole experience feels stale. A daily habit, perhaps, but a stale one. Increasingly, there is a sense that it's time for a change, for a new way of searching or discovering or pulling or pushing content. As Marco Arment put it in a recent blog post,
Social networks have powerful benefits and are here to stay. But like any trend, we’ve swung too far in that direction for our own good, as both producers and consumers. I hope the pendulum starts to swing back soon, because it hasn’t yet. It’s going to get worse before it gets better, if it ever does. If we want it to get better, we need to start pushing back against the trend, modernizing blogs, and building what we want to come next.Publishers will have a voice in the conversation, but the central role will belong to whoever comes up with a better way to filter the content most relevant to our lives. Google had an opportunity to do that with Google Reader, but instead of building on the RSS aggregator, it shut it down in July 2013, citing declining use. Like blogs themselves, feeds like Reader feel anachronistic. But it's the how – the way they functioned - that has become outmoded. The what – the act of filtering itself – is as important as ever.
If RSS feeds, blogs and bookmarks feel limited and dated, so, increasingly, do social networks and the practice of firing up a dozen mobile apps just to get a sense of what's going on in the world. Navigating the web these days involves a game of hopscotching a number of services, each one becoming less satisfying by the year. Our collective attention craves a better navigation system. If Google wants to snap out of its malaise, it would be wise to focus on this problem.