Does Google's power threaten the web?

Does Google's power threaten the web?

Summary: Google's making some businesses go ga-ga

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TOPICS: Hardware
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Google's making some businesses go ga-ga

Patrick Ahern has witnessed the power of Google - and the difficulties of trying to do business without it. Data Recovery Group, where he is president, would typically come up around the fourth listing on Google's popular search engine last year. Then in January, when Google removed the company from its listings without explanation, Data Recovery saw a 30 per cent drop in business. "When you're number four that plays well; when you fall off, you tend to lose phone traffic. And if you don't have the right relationship with Google to find out what you could have done wrong, you're out of luck," Ahern said, noting that this can have a dangerous domino effect. "If you're not ranked in Google, Yahoo won't list you. It's incestuous." In the dot-com shakeout, Google has not only survived but reigns supreme. Web surfers have flocked to the service, effectively voting it the best search engine around. So powerful has Google become that many companies view it as the web itself: If you're not listed on its indexes, they say, you might as well not exist. And if you don't advertise on Google or otherwise curry favour, critics add, you may never find out what it takes to get a prominent listing. Pragmatists in the industry even say its dominance in web search gives Google a new responsibility to maintain fair access to as many sites as possible, leading some to suggest that it be regulated as a quasi-public agency. Last week, for example, an Oklahoma marketing firm filed suit against Google in federal court charging that Google unfairly began listing the company lower in search results. "So many people are dependent on Google's free editorial traffic that it's like food out of their mouths to lose ranking," said Danny Sullivan, who runs Searchenginewatch.com. "Search engines are not in the business of supporting people's companies. But if they are going to provide editorial, they need to provide support. These are some of the issues they face." Only a few years ago, when traffic was more evenly distributed among search services, Web sites clamoured to get free listings from familiar names such as Lycos and AltaVista. But the dot-com collapse led portals and search engines to sell sponsored links and license editorial results from a third party - a market that Google, based in Mountain View, California, has come to dominate since its founding in 1998. Leading portals and internet service providers such as Yahoo, America Online and EarthLink have turned to Google to power their searches because of its simple, straightforward style and consistency for serving up germane results. Such companies typically mix Google's results with listings of their own to maintain some autonomy and uniqueness on the web. It is these deals that have catapulted Google ahead of competitors and sent website operators scrambling for prominent listings in its search results. "It's not like we've put all our eggs in one basket - it's just that there is no other basket," said Greg Boser, president of web marketing consultancy WebGuerrilla, which helps companies improve their visibility in search engines. In many ways, this is no exaggeration. Google averages about 15 million visitor hours each month, compared with Yahoo search at six million hours, according to Sullivan. Search hours are calculated by factoring the number of site visitors by the average number of minutes each spends at the site. Yahoo recently renewed its partnership with Google for an unspecified term, a deal some doubted would happen because of the search darling's growing threat. Yahoo has even given Google more editorial voice and played down its own directory results. Search engine experts say that in comparison tests, a search on Google and on Yahoo varies little for popular terms such as Britney Spears. Google fights back: For the second part of this in-depth report, see http://www.silicon.com/a56199

Topic: Hardware

Stephanie Olsen

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