The True (and Hidden) Costs of Using Google
When a company′s name becomes a verb, you know that company′s products have become an indispensable part of life. No one makes photocopies -- they Xerox something. No one digitally alters pictures -- they Photoshop them. And of course, no one conducts an Internet search -- they Google.
The undeniable dominance of the last instance comes mostly from the general public embracing Google with both arms. And according to Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor at the University of Virginia, that may not be in our best interests.
In his new book, ″The Googlization of Everything″ (University of California Press, 2011), Vaidhyanathan claims that Google′s users -- which is to say all of us -- don′t fully understand the terms of our relationship with the company. He argues that we pay for Google′s services by providing them with information, and that we′re not getting a very good deal.
Vaidhyanathan sat down with InnovationNewsDaily to discuss his book, the blind adoption of Google as the dominant platform for all things Internet, and why the future might mean different search engines for different topics.
InnovationNewsDaily: I understand that Google is popular, but a lot of companies have near-monopolies on their industry. Band-Aid controls the adhesive bandage market, but you didn′t write a book about them. Why Google?
Vaidhyanathan: It’s more about our blind embrace of it. I’m really fascinated by the enthusiasm by which we so uncritically embrace everything Google does. Apple has never been more than 10 percent of the PC market in its entire history. Apple has a cult following that is hard core and important, but with the exception of the iPod, Apple was never mass market. Google’s ability to connect us, to influence our judgment, is really unprecedented. I can’t think of any company -- short of AT&T -- that has had this power.
InnovationNewsDaily: Unlike many monopolies of the past, Google attained theirs not through anti-competitive practices, but by simply putting out the best product. You caution against embracing Google, but shouldn′t consumers embrace the best product?
Vaidhyanathan: I don’t have a problem with the fact of the embrace, or Google’s success. In fact, I think it speaks very well to the fact that Google makes us pleased most of the time. My issue is that we should more fully understand the costs and benefits of the relationship. I am not arguing that Google doesn’t deserve the tremendous success it has had. I want people to understand why it has had that success, and to look at it realistically, not fantastically. We think of it as the air we breathe, rather than a very sophisticated company that does a number of things for us and with us.
InnovationNewsDaily: What′s the first thing people should understand about Google that they don′t?
Vaidhyanathan: First and foremost, we are not Google’s custumers. We don’t write checks to Google. We are the product. We are what Google sells to advertisers. That’s not radically different, since that’s what NBC does, and what the New York Times does. But we are also Google’s worker bees, since we give it the information it needs to get better. All of that interaction makes Google smarter every day. I think it is a fair trade, but only if we understand it as a trade. Google is a black box to most of us. It’s still mostly a black box to me, and I studied the thing for five years. It is not a transparent relationship, and it is not an equal relationship.
InnovationNewsDaily: What was the most surprising revelation about Google you learned while researching this book?
Vaidhyanathan: The fact that Google is constantly personalizing search results is the biggest surprise. We have a sense that Google is giving us the best answer to a query, but in fact, they′re giving you the most relevant response to a query. And that relevance is determined not just by the best answer to a query, but by your history of search. People aren’t aware to the extent by which our past responses influence the search results. You and I will get very different responses if we search for the same thing at the same time. That’s really good for shopping, but not very good for learning.
InnovationNewsDaily: If Google is optimized for shopping, what does the future hold for search in topics that don′t relate to commerce?
Vaidhyanathan: We might encourage the development of search engines that specialize in geographic information. We might encourage the development of search engines for medical information. There’s no urgency to it, because Google is still a very good place to start an exploration of an issue, but as Google doubles down on the personalization, we need to understand that Google serves us up the things we consume in the world, and not other answers.
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This story was provided by InnovationNewsDaily, a sister site to TechNewsDaily.