Sooner or later, the shark gets jumped

Short-term thinking repeated again and again doesn’t lead to long-term thinking.

Rand Fishkin shares a thoughtful analysis about a trend that now affects just about everyone: Google is hoarding more and more traffic.

When I worked at Yahoo, there were 183 links on our home page. The stated strategy of the company was to build more and more internal content and services (Yahoo mail, Yahooligans, Yahoo Finance) to keep as many surfers on their site for as long as they could. The math was simple: if you’re getting paid by the impression, having someone stay for twenty or thirty clicks is way more profitable than encouraging them to leave and go to another site.

Google blew this status quo wide open. Their model was very different: “come here on your way to somewhere else.”  There were only two links on their home page, because the only place they wanted to encourage you to go was wherever a good search led you.

If you were a company or an individual with something to say, this hub and spoke model was essential to your ability to make a difference online. The web is a very big haystack, but if your needle was sharp enough, the promise was that you could get found.

And if you were someone looking for information, commerce or connection, you could rely on Google to take you there.

This, as much as anything, enabled Google to draw huge amounts of traffic away from Yahoo. It didn’t take very long for surfers to realize that they wanted to see what else was out there, not be shunted around a walled garden.

Year after year, driven by the short-term (shortsighted) demands of the public markets, Google has been losing its way on this effective (and community-based) strategy. In the most recent data Rand quoted, we see that more than half the time, a search on Google leads to someone either clicking on nothing (because they found what they needed without leaving the search results) or visiting a property Google already owns.

On a regular basis, Google makes changes to their UI and algorithm that destroy companies or industries in order to keep more time and clicks from the person who was expecting to find themselves somewhere else after visiting Google.

If you’re a fan of the open web, this is bad news.

If you’re an individual or business that’s hoping to be ‘found’ via a search, this is bad news.

And if you’re a Google employee or shareholder this is bad news as well, because monopoly is a tempting place to extract cash and drive the stock up, but it’s not stable.

The resilience of the connected open web is one of the shining lights of our modern culture, and my hope is that we can avert lock-in before we calcify around the current status quo.

Every monopoly seems like it’s going to last forever, until it doesn’t.