Some Thoughts About Google Search Plus Your World (SPYW)

By Eric Goldman

[Normally I don't like to blog about these types of newsy product releases, especially when the facts are still being developed. However, I have spoken with some reporters about Search Plus Your World (see, e.g., this article by Robert Hof at Forbes), and I put together the following comments for a different reporter that seemed worth sharing.]

I have been consistently skeptical about the antitrust gripes about Google. Despite the dogged efforts of a long list of adversaries, no one has yet surfaced any “smoking gun” evidence that Google has acted impermissibly under antitrust law. Instead, most antitrust gripes about Google sound like sour grapes or, worse, efforts to misuse antitrust law to increase the complainer’s profits at the expense of the public interest. For example, when other online intermediaries raise antitrust complaints that Google should be giving them more free traffic, I start to question the motives of the complainers. For a little more on this, see my recent article on search engine bias.

Having said that, Google’s strongest defense all along has been that its search redesign choices have been in consumers’ best interests. I think the widespread negative response to Search Plus Your World reflects, in part, a skepticism that Google’s favoritism towards Google+ is solely in the consumers’ best interests. Indeed, Google’s own use case (the example involving Chikoo) seemed quite weak as a situation where the search results were actually improved–and I presume Google tried to showcase one of the strongest examples it could find. In my limited experience with Search Plus Your World so far, I haven’t yet seen a single search results page where the prominent display of Google+ results actually improved the relevancy of my results. If anything, I have had some search results page where it was clearly harder for me to find the most relevant results.

If we lose faith that Google’s integration of Google+ was in the searchers’ best interest, our imaginations can run wild with speculation about other reasons why Google made the choices it made. I believe this is what’s happening in the court of popular opinion. From a legal standpoint, I don’t think Search Plus Your World adds very much to the antitrust complaints against Google (and some of the complaints, especially Twitter’s, seem more like sour grapes than bona fide concerns). It’s just another example where Google is cross-promoting its services, which is not inherently wrong and often can improve the consumer experience. However, if Google can’t prove to us that each of its specific choices to integrate Google+ are in our best interests given the widespread speculation that they weren’t, Google creates a major wedge in the trust relationship with users–and invites judges and regulators to impute bad motives to Google if they want.

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One more point. Just last summer, many folks were cheering Google+ as the first bona fide competitor to Facebook to emerge in some time, which is important because Facebook has some serious issues with a dominant market share itself. Google’s efforts to bolster Google+ have the ancillary benefit of keeping Facebook on its toes and improving competition in the social networking space. On balance, having choices among social networking sites is a good thing, especially as Facebook continues to degrade the user experience by putting surreptitious ads in the newsfeed and with the MySpace-ification of its profile page UI via Timeline. This alone doesn’t excuse all of Google’s choices about integrating Google+, but we shouldn’t lose sight of this big picture either.

UPDATE: Some of my favorite articles on SPYW so far:

* Danny Sullivan: Search Engines Should Be Like Santa From “Miracle On 34th Street”

* Steven Levy

* Tim Carmody

UPDATE 2: Techcrunch: Not At Any Price: Twitter Denied Data To Google And Bet On Itself