Can Google’s dominance be broken?

Welcome to a series where old posts are revived for reasons such as their subject has become topical again, they have aged well but were first posted when the site’s readership was only a tenth or less of what it is currently or they got published and the site crashed, hiding the finest words of wisdom behind an incomprehensible error message. Today’s is about Google. I’ve updated the social network usage figures from the original 2009 post.

Google dominates the search engine market, both in the UK and internationally. Although there are some countries where a local search service has the lead (e.g. Russia), overall Google is undoubtedly number one.

The world however is full of companies which used to be massive, even dominant, but fell from grace. Remember the days when Novell dominated the server market? Or watch Blade Runner and look at the brand names used back then, firms so big that it was easy to believe the future would include them. Names such as Pan-Am.

So could Google too fall from grace? And if so how?

Google gets a case of commercial madness

No matter how big the company, a domineering chief with a kooky business plan can bring it to its knees. Think RBS. Think Marconi. It may be very much a long shot that Google will commit commercial suicide in this way, but it is not completely unthinkable. (And the highly implausible has a nasty habit of happening now and again. After all, who until a few weeks ago would have thought that one wrong character in one file could break Google’s search engines for a few hours?).

Google gets regulated

The repeated skirmishes between Microsoft and regulators haven’t brought Microsoft to its knees. They have cost the firm in fines, legal costs and reputation, but Microsoft is still one of the commercially most successful companies in the history of the IT industry.

Other firms have though been dismembered by regulatory action; IBM comes to mind most notably.

Could Google ever face such a fate? Its increasing dominance of online advertising markets could leave it open to anti-trust / anti-monopoly action, especially if the economic downturn and resulting advertising squeeze makes its advertising rivals turn up the pressure for intervention.

Google loses the privacy battle

Much of Google technical and commercial success relies on gathering bucket loads of data from us. Lots and lots and lots. And the putting that data to work to improve its services even further and to tie us in to them.

But what if there is a move to give people much more control over what is done with their data? This could cause serious damage to the Google way, and it appears to be the line of attack that Microsoft is taking.

Microsoft has been signing up some of the best privacy talent in the business to work for it. All done in the name of helping to improve its own services of course, but if Microsoft can get public and regulatory opinion on its side, we could see a move towards much greater individual control over data that could seriously damage Google.

Someone does a better search engine than Google

There have been, and are, lots of new search services which try to find an approach that Google doesn’t cover, such as clustering search results around themes or providing visual representations of the results.

This is an area where Google can feel confident, because not only is it their own core area of expertise, but Google has the huge financial resources to buy or replicate any ideas other people have which take off.

Moreover, Google is  now so deeply embedded into people’s habits and systems, that even if a better search engine came along (and several around at the moment argue that they are better), Google has a huge incumbency advantage. To illustrate this, imagine if you invented a superior taste for a cola drink this weekend. What would you actually then start doing on Monday morning to topple Coke or Pepsi? It’s not trivial task to knock an incumbent off their perch, even online.

We stop needing Google

A bigger risk, though, is that people move to using search services built into other services which are beyond Google. This is what was happening with YouTube – until Google purchased it. YouTube has become the second most popular search site on the internet, after Google itself. It may only return video results, but its content is so popular that people are often happy to only be searching that, leaving the rest of the internet alone.

With YouTube, Google’s money snuffled out the threat. But why shouldn’t search migrate in future to another site stuffed full of content? And if that other site, having captured people’s attention with the ability to search its own content, started adding in search results from the wider internet…

Consider social networks, which now get more internet traffic in the UK than search engines.

Or consider Microsoft’s move to turn its extremely widespread Office software suite into a web-based software service. Microsoft’s own search engine has failed to dent Google’s dominance, but imagine a world where Microsoft migrates millions of users around the world to using Office online, making its Office services some of the most heavily used sites on the internet. Drop a search box on to them and it’d be time to start selling Google stock.

There are good reasons to think that each of these futures might not happen. Just as Microsoft has largely successfully seen off wave after wave of competitors, Google might too. But even if the odds of any one method of downfall are low, for Google to continue to dominate, it has to be the case that none of them happens – and that’s a much less likely prospect.

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