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Google's golden jail cell is a metaphor for the web, and we're all struggling to break out

The traffic on the web is growing. Not that you'd know if you are outside the Google family of websites, according to new research.

by Rob Corbidge
Published: 13:16, 04 July 2024

Rob Corbidge is Head of Content Intelligence at Glide Publishing Platform, applying the latest knowledge about advances and ideas in the publishing industry to our own product and helping clients get the most from their content.

Googles golden jail cell and the problem of the internet

I remembered this week the concern shown by the architect who designed Google's gargantuan global HQ, that it was so nice and full of free stuff for staff that it risked creating worker-addicts so reliant on company baubles that they cannot move to other jobs or experience the world.

Clive Wilkinson, for it was he, explained: "Work-life balance cannot be achieved by spending all your life on a work campus. It's not real. It's not really engaging with the world ... and it drains the immediate neighborhoods of being able to have a commercial reality."

Sound a bit familiar?

"Why the shriek of violins over Google staff's golden jail cell Rob?", I hear. 

Well, firstly, I am concerned for them, and continue to hope they do the rest of the world a favour and accidentally leak more documents about how the company works and especially the way its AI has been fed.

Secondly, it's a good metaphor for the traffic on the internet, we now know.

Independently accurate web metrics are hard to find. I view such information through the lens of a 1930s Soviet Commissar giving tractor production numbers and working out which version of reality can afford to be reported upwards.

Consequently, I love research which acknowledges the unknowns but still produces a good picture of what is actually happening out there in the fast moving world of web.

SparkToro have this week dropped just such an item of research in the form of the 2024 Zero-Click Search Study. 

Zero-click searches are here defined as: "those that end without clicking on any of the results presented" and includes "searches that end with the searcher satisfied, frustrated, or changing their search to perform a new one".

Here's the bad news: for every 1,000 searches on Google in the US and EU, barely a third go anywhere to the open web - which in this case, means a website or property not controlled by Google. The rest perform other searches, stop entirely, or - some 30% - go to a Google family site.

Google's gate appears to be an advanced turnstile that mysteriously leads back in to where you started. And they plan on keeping it U-bend-shaped.

A trend identified in the SparkToro research is interesting if you are looking for something encouraging. While Google keeps more search traffic by percentage within its ever expanding circle, an increase in volume of searches overall means that the actual traffic numbers sent outwards is staying steady. 

Google HQ is no doubt planning a higher dam to stop that escaping traffic sloshing over to the outside world's many sites and businesses, though I feel its new Generative-AI Overview search results won't be the decisive factor in whatever plan they formulate.  

Using Google as the anvil of our anger ignores a broader truth: as they grow and increase in market dominance, businesses reach a certain critical point at which they look for Things To Do, taking more control of the upstream or downstream elements of the market they are involved in. So it is with Google. 

We're not not saying they're Standard Oil, but... they're Standard Oil.

It is not an entirely unique situation.

There's no insight into the intent of search from the SparkToro data, but it's a factor though. If most of those zero-click searches are surfacing a Google summary or leading to a Google product, then why would they care if other website owners get nothing?

That was one of the arguments used against the break-up of Standard Oil. For the consumer, it wasn't necessarily a bad company, it was what it did to everyone else trying to compete that brought it down. 

Sound familiar?

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