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The internet turns 53 this year, and it has been profoundly shaped by Big Tech companies, including my previous employer, Google.
As the internet advances into middle age, Google is currently in control of an incredible amount of the world’s access to information on the internet. Users across the globe appear to be constantly served “free content;” however, there’s a hidden fee for this content served up by a company that has more than 90% market share.
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Google’s success in search advertising, as well as its relentless focus on driving advertising on the web, has created a toxic web environment where everything we do is surveilled. What we do in a search and even beyond is packaged and used for advertising, and it is extremely difficult to tell the authentic and trustworthy from the attention-grabbing and deceptive.
But search doesn’t need to be this way. Consumers and enterprises alike can benefit from a bespoke web experience that serves up genuinely helpful answers to searches, not advertisers shilling the wares they want to unload today.
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Here’s how we go about reinventing web search.
Reduce ad noise by subscribing to an alternative search model
Subscription services undoubtedly benefited from the pandemic. People signed up to Netflix, Disney+ and others in droves. Meanwhile, premium publishers shifted the majority of their content behind a paywall. People have grown accustomed to subscription services, as it doesn’t just extend to entertainment, but fitness classes, home cooking kits, software, skincare — the list goes on. The takeaway from subscription economy growth: People want products to deliver the best experience for them and not a persona that Google has created based on their buying preferences.
Web searches shouldn’t be any different. After all, it’s the way we access knowledge, and it informs our opinions.
A search subscription model would make ads redundant. With no advertisers to please, the focus is put back on users, which means that companies can focus on making search experiences more accurate and intuitive. Users pay a small monthly fee in exchange for unbiased search results and a product where privacy becomes a de facto foundation; which is good news for everyone.
However, shifting to a subscription model at scale and eradicating ads in search is certainly not without its challenges. It’s why Google still has the monopoly on web search today. But it’s also not a dystopian future out of our reach.
Search engines should be about choice and discovery
One of the biggest obstacles to making a subscription-based search model a reality is making it simple for users to switch to an alternative.
Users deserve a real choice, and competitors deserve fair and equitable access to the market, not the bare minimum that Google deems will satisfy regulatory scrutiny. For example, Android’s “choice” screen is only updated once a year and actively buries alternatives with ad-funded Google clones. And even if users seek out and find alternatives, monopolies like Google abuse their market share to put in place anti-competitive practices such as misleading prompts and dark patterns to trick users into returning to walled gardens.
And just as alternatives aren’t competing on a level playing field for awareness and choice among potential users, they also run into the buzzsaw of Google’s dominance over webmasters when it comes to building an independent search engine. The web is a hostile environment for most upstart search engine crawlers, with most websites only allowing Google’s crawler and discriminating against other search engine crawlers.
Without a change in policy and behavior, competitors in search will remain fighting with one hand tied behind their backs, and Google will continue to maintain market dominance. This isn’t just bad news for companies rivaling Big Tech or users, but democracy itself.
Embrace control and make search work harder for users and SMEs
While policy shifts are needed to create a fair playing field, the way to fundamentally improve web search for users is by putting control back into their hands rather than serving up content based on cookies.
This form of web search effectively second-guesses the end user. While this may be effective for superficial, single-click searches, this can result in poor-quality results for objective or in-depth searching.
Search engines of the future need to be more focused on the user experience and the bespoke needs of users and businesses. Enabling users to choose what trusted sources to extract information from, for example, an academic archive or news resource will return higher quality, more relevant information.
This is positive for publishers, as it means quality content is prioritized on its own merit rather than ranked on who pays the most. And it gives customers more control over their search and more trust in their web search provider.
A new model that gives users control and eliminates the misaligned incentives from an advertising model also eradicates Google’s tax, whereby small businesses have to pay to keep their name at the top of search and, therefore, top of mind for users. Instead of bidding on their own brand name to stop competitors from bidding more to claim that query, businesses can focus more on their products and differentiate themselves in the market. And users are served more relevant results rather than substandard businesses gaming the advertising and bidding systems.
Rethinking search for businesses
When you don’t sell data, and users have control of their web experience, trust is built with the end user. This trust and respect for the user experience provide an opportunity to challenge the traditional parameters of what it means to search for knowledge. For example, extending the ability to seamlessly search across all your digital content from email to Dropbox, Slack and Jira creates an even more valuable search experience.
For businesses, this could save countless hours sifting through documents and apps to find the information they’re searching for. This helps fuel productivity and efficiency for employees and offers so many other benefits. But it starts with trust and giving users back control; without that, it’s web search groundhog day.
If we are to move away from “Googling everything” and want to reinvent web search for good, a significant shift is needed from all of the internet’s stakeholders. That means a shift in behavior from everyone, not just the engineers building the technology to change the status quo.
Users need to demand control of their data and user experiences; regulators need to level the playing field and welcome competition to rival Google’s monopoly, and users and businesses need to view search as a service rather than a no strings attached way of receiving free content and knowledge.
Any model that aims to take on Google must put the user first and build a truly better search experience. Being private or ad-free doesn’t go far enough.
If this happens, we really could be looking at Goliath versus David 2.0 and a way to finally break Google’s monopoly.
Sridhar Ramaswarmy is CEO and cofounder of Neeva.
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