In case you missed it, Google has been taking a beating in some quarters over the addition of Google+ content to search, something the search giant argues is beneficial for users, but critics say is an unfair use of the company’s market dominance. Twitter is one of those complaining that Google is promoting its own social network, but Google says it’s just obeying Twitter’s request to not index its content, and Twitter is the one who backed out of a deal between the two. Both sides are being disingenuous, and the real issue is about control over social content — and users of both services are the ones who wind up losing in the end.
The new Google features, which the company calls “Search plus Your World,” involve integrating content from Google+ into search results (the new feature is opt-in by default, but users can switch it off with a click). That means profiles of Google+ users in your network, as well as photos from their accounts, comments and other updates will start showing up in search — and Google is also recommending content from celebrities or other high-profile users of its network alongside searches. Although content from other networks can appear, the majority of the links and content are from Google’s own network.
Google needs access to social signals
But the real motivation behind this kind of move, as we’ve described before, is that Google is still behind the eight-ball when it comes to social signals and how they affect search. The web giant allowed Facebook and Twitter to become the dominant players in the social networking market, and so it is missing out on the new ways in which content is being discovered — namely, by people sharing links via their networks. Winning this race is so important that co-founder Larry Page made it a core focus when he assumed the CEO job last year, and even tied the compensation of Googlers to the mission.
The big problem for Google is that the social signals occurring in Twitter and Facebook’s networks are obscured by those companies. Facebook’s history with Google is fraught with tension and mutual back-biting, including a botched PR campaign by Facebook aimed at making Google look bad for scraping its content — so that avenue is likely closed off for good. Twitter seemed like a different story, since the two sides had a deal for more than 18 months that saw Google get access to the “firehose” of Twitter data. But that deal expired after Twitter reportedly asked for too much money to renew.
Twitter took the unusual step Tuesday of making a public statement about Google’s new features, saying it’s “concerned” that promoting Google+ content will damage the search experience for users, as well as make things more difficult for publishers and the news industry in general — a statement clearly intended to pique the interest of antitrust investigators. Twitter’s general counsel (who used to work at Google) said it was a “sad day for the Internet” and Google’s search results were being “warped” by the addition of Google+ content. Those are some pretty strong words.
Google and Twitter bicker, users lose
In retaliation, Google said it was Twitter that walked away from the real-time search data partnership it had with the web giant, and it had “observed [Twitter's] rel=nofollow instructions” — in other words, not indexing or following links that appear in tweets, which makes it effectively impossible to index all of Twitter’s content. As a number of people have pointed out, however, these rules are actually dictated by Google itself, since the search company more or less forces websites to use “nofollow” tags by penalizing them for bad links.
Not only that, but Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land notes that Google has tons of data from Twitter that it gets by crawling public links (3 billion results or so, according to Sullivan) and yet virtually none of this shows up in the new personalized search alongside the Google+ content. This makes Google’s move seem more like a gambit — and potentially a very risky one — to force Twitter to play ball with its data at a lower price.
In the end, the one who really loses from this war of words is the user — of both Google search and Twitter. As Jeff Jarvis points out in a post on the issue, the fight is really about control over the data that should belong to users (although it could be argued that they have traded it in return for access to a free service). The current situation leaves Google with social results that only consist of Google+ content and leaves Twitter without any effective way of showing historic tweets to users at all, since Twitter’s search still leaves a lot to be desired. How does this state of affairs help anyone?
This battle is about who is going to be the go-to network for social content and search. Google wants to own both, and is willing to tempt the antitrust fates by using its dominance in search to promote Google+. Facebook locks down all of its content and has chosen its partner by siding with Microsoft and Bing, while Twitter is caught in the middle; it has no search to speak of, and Google is clearly playing to win. Users can only sit and watch their content become a football for the three to fight over.