The DOJ Is Fighting Google on a Shifting Battlefield

Marissa Mayer, Google’s 20th employee who later went on to lead Yahoo!, once told me that for many years, Google would do a test: It would show a certain percentage of users a version of search with no ads, to see if people preferred a commercially pristine experience. The result, she boasted, was that users would consistently use the ad-supplied search engine more—they liked ads, and found them useful. When I asked Google if it still conducted this test, no one seemed to recall doing it in the first place. Which means, I guess, that they don’t do it anymore. If they did, I suspect the result might be different. (Google tells me that it does do tests in general to see if its ads are welcome, or whether they repel people.)

But if Google web search has deteriorated in quality (an assessment Google vigorously denies) that begs the question as to why competitors haven’t taken advantage. Certainly if Amazon or Facebook had created superior general interest search engines, they would have the wherewithal to pay Apple and others for placement. But after seemingly testing a run at Google, both have retreated. Amazon started a search company in the heart of Silicon Valley called A9, but it never developed a direct Google competitor. In 2013 Facebook introduced Graph Search, which seemed to have some advantages over Google search—namely, access to the social data on Facebook. But that experiment fizzled as well.

I suspect those giants backed down because they got the commercial results they sought through other means. There is evidence that people now use Amazon’s product search more than Google’s when looking for stuff to buy. And Facebook found that by using massive amounts of user data, it could understand people’s intent when they’re looking to buy something—a power once believed to only come from a search engine where people explicitly express their desire by typing in a search box.

The lesson is that web search, while still very powerful, might not be the only way into people’s pocketbooks. In fact, you can make a case that the DOJ is fighting on a battlefield that has already shifted. Search competition has spread to multiple fields of conflict including maps, voice assistants, and even automotive operating assistants. Google’s dominance in web search is less critical by that yardstick.

That doesn’t mean that the suit is ill-advised. Exposing Google search to more competition would benefit all of us. I’d be happy to see Google give up the default position on Apple Safari, Mozilla, and Samsung phones, just to give some other rivals a chance. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point, Google settles this case, and that the end of paid placement will be part of the deal.

But no matter which way the suit goes—and since antitrust litigation operates at Bleak House velocity—the DOJ’s move this week hardly gets at the root of our Big Tech problem. That will only be addressed by sweeping legislation that focuses more on the protection of citizens than targeting companies that take advantage of our outdated regulation and laws. If there’s a way to do that wisely, I doubt that you’ll find the answer in a Google search.

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Time Travel

In 2013, Facebook introduced Graph Search. My WIRED story on it focused on its potential, little of which was realized: