Google: As Open As It Wants To Be (i.e., When It’s Convenient)
In two weeks, we’ve had two "open" initiatives from Google:
OpenSocial, to free
social networking data from behind the Facebook walled garden and the
Open Handset Alliance,
to free cell phones from a myriad of complicated mobile OS platforms and
carriers who want to restrict features. I’ve seen some people writing about open
as the new black, with Google showing its fashion sense by dressing in the
latest color. But lest anyone think that Google’s wardrobe is being replaced
with an all-open line-up, it’s worth remembering that recently, open mainly fits
Google when it’s behind competitively in a space. Let’s consider the places
where staying closed is what suits Google best.
Everyone’s all excited about the "social graph" these days, that
terrible term that simply means social network data or social linkage. If
you know how people are connected, there are all types of interesting things you
can do, from applications that let people compare movie tastes to targeting ads.
Facebook is seen as having the best social data, which is why Google wants to
tap into it through OpenSocial (see
background). But what about the "web graph," that similarly terrible term that
simply means how pages are linked together? Years ago, Google tapped into the
web graph to improve its relevancy and now remains the
top search engine in the
While the major search engines thankfully no longer play the page count game,
I’ve got no doubts about Google’s
claim to be much
larger than its rivals in general. It has been scaling up its index — the
collection of documents it gathers from the web — consistently since the
That large index gives Google a huge advantage over rivals. It knows more
about what’s on the web than anyone else. So why not share? Why not start an
Open Index Alliance where there’s a coordinated effort to crawl and index all
the documents in the world, allowing anyone to tap into the raw data?
An absurd idea? Why? Just having the same collection of documents doesn’t
mean a competitor would be as good as Google. It will still come down to the
search algorithm, that system that sifts through all the data and decides which
documents are best. Google’s index isn’t the secret sauce — it’s the Google
algorithm that’s important.
Still, the index is important competitively. Deny that to competitors and
they have to go through the significant time and expense of building their own.
That takes away from time that can go into improving the more important search
algorithms. In addition, if competitors can’t build as large an index, they’ve got less data to work with and potentially are further behind Google.
Still, why should Google be open to helping others by opening up web search?
Two reasons. First, it’s consistent. If Google’s going to push for those with
existing advantages to open up through efforts like OpenSocial and the Open
Handset Alliance, an Open Index Alliance just seems like fair play.
Second, it’s not just competitors. There are researchers who would like to
tap into a huge collection of web documents. To my knowledge, this isn’t
something that currently happens. Some researchers might be able to tap into a
small portion, but certainly not everything Google has on tap.
I was able to attend Foo Camp
this year, and a session of creating an open index was one of the highlights for
me. Doug Cutting talked about his work on
things like Nutch and Lucene. At the table listening with great interest were
both Jason Calacanis of
Mahalo and Jimmy Wales of
Search Wikia. Both
want a massive index they can tap into. Wales, in particular, gets much press
pushing on Google for not being open with its index. Others at the session
raised the issue of researchers wanting to use the data. And midway through,
Google’s Larry Page arrived and joined in.
Maybe some of that conversation will flow back to Google and an open index
might happen. Personally, I’m not counting on it. I still feel Google sees its
web index as a crown jewel to be hoarded and protected, not fully shared — and
if I’m correct, that’s deeply ironic given the "open" push in other areas.
There’s probably no deeper example of Google being closed than when it comes
to book search. Google’s efforts to scan books are well known at this point.
But Google keeps coming under fire for agreements said to restrict those scans
for being used by its competitors. For background, see:
- Battle For Books:
Evil Google Versus The Altruistic Open Content Alliance
- The Politics of
Book Search: Some Research Libraries Decline to Offer Books to Microsoft,
To be fair, Microsoft has also added similar restrictions. But if Google’s on
an "open" kick, why not join the
Open Content Alliance?
The OCA was started in 2005 as a rival to Google’s book scanning efforts,
with Yahoo and Microsoft as major backers but the Internet Archive also
participating and leading as a neutral party. Of course, Internet Archive
founder Brewster Kahle has had plenty of non-neutral things to say about
Google’s book scanning efforts, concerned that Google is gobbling too much up for its
Well, what better way to counter the "closed" PR than to join the OCA? And
more importantly, it would be better for everyone if scanning the world’s books
were done in a coordinated manner, rather than the probable duplication of
efforts that is going on right now.
Firefox Default Search
I was bemused to see Jeremy Shoemaker come
under fire for questioning why Google is the default in many versions of
Firefox, since he was right in his assessment. A Firefox developer
responded that Google’s the default because users want it and that Yahoo
couldn’t buy the default slot. As a Firefox user, I must have missed the vote
that was held. But sarcasm aside, Google
the spot — except for some Asian versions of Firefox (Yahoo
Firefox is important because when Internet Explorer 7 came out, Google was
very much of the opinion that users need to get more "choice" about the search
provider selected — i.e., the search defaults should be more open.
Google & Dell’s
Revenue-Generating URL Error Pages Drawing Fire gives more background on
this, plus it highlights that the idea of open choice is fine when Google’s at a
disadvantage (in IE7) but restricting choice is fine when Google benefits (with
Firefox or Dell’s branded search).
Perhaps it’s time for an Open Search Default Alliance, where the OSDA can
figure out how users can best control their search settings rather than this
being left to business interests. That might prevent people like Verizon from
deciding recently that they’d like to monetize error traffic by seizing
control of searches. Since Verizon partners with Yahoo, the OSDA could actually
help Google. Of course, it might hurt it in other cases. But it’s all about
being open, right?
AdWords & AdSense
Talking about openness when it comes to AdWords and AdSense in the context of
cooperative activities is a stretch, I admit. But if you’re going to talk about
Google being open in general, you have to address the inherent closed nature of
How much will an ad cost you through AdWords? Depends on the
mysteries of quality
score, which was recently declared to us at Search Engine Land that buying an ad
for our own name would cost at minimum $5 per click, presumably because we
aren’t relevant enough. Right. Because as you know, most people on Google
searching for us by name probably don’t want to reach our site. Heh. But
competitors buying our name, they are apparently more relevant (or pay more),
since they outrank us.
Hey, I understand the concept of an account history, and how over time,
things should get better for us. But it can be maddening to people, and the
closed nature of how AdWords operates — that black box that just got
poked at again, this time by Robert X. Cringely, doesn’t fit the "open"
trend some think Google is following.
As for AdSense, how much does Google keep back from publishers? If you’re
big, like Ask.com,
you’ll know the slice you’re getting. But most people are going to get
whatever Google decides to give. AdSense isn’t an "open" marketplace where
publishers set prices and see how much advertisers are willing to pay, with
Google taking a known and set percentage. Google will take whatever it wants,
and publishers are left guessing. So much for open.
If I come off as harsh, well, I also do a lot of defending of Google as well,
as I just did yesterday about
Cringley’s post. My goal in this, as with many posts, is to provide some
balance. And those thinking Google has swallowed the open Kool-Aid need to think
Google does do plenty of things I find encouraging on the open front. They
with the Open Invention Network a few months back. Google was the driving force
to get search engines united around the
standard. There are no doubt many other examples of where Google is involved
with collective, open-source style projects.
But these things are far from an institutional mandate, from what I’ve seen
so far — and the latest, most prominent efforts come because being open makes
good business sense for Google, not because it makes good sense in general.
(Some images used under license from Shutterstock.com.)
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