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Note to FTC: Google Satisfies Information Needs Way More Than Shopping Needs

Mike Grehan
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“Picture the communications future: every home linked via cable TV, push‐button phone, and video cassette to virtually every information retrieval bank in the country; every citizen able to efficiently get an answer to every question, a solution for every problem.”

google-holograph-logoIf you take out the antiquated references to push-button phones and video cassettes, you could easily imagine that the quote above came from the founders of Google. Or from the founders of any given web search engine, for that matter.

Yet, the quote is lifted directly from a special 1976 edition of the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, with the title: “Strategies for Dealing with Human Information Needs: Information or Communication?”

Communication practitioners and researchers in broadcasting, journalism, library science, and other information dissemination professions are devoting mammoth efforts to designing bigger information retrieval systems capable of handling more information, the journal stated. Information, it seems, was a key concept for the 1970s. “An answer to every question, a solution for every problem” was the baseline for human information needs.

The authors could never have imagined that the solution in the not too distant future would be summed up with these two words:

Google it!

From day one, Google’s mission has been to “organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Perhaps not a totally original idea as Professor Vannevar Bush had a similar thought back in 1945 when he argued in the Atlantic Monthly that “as humans turned from war, scientific efforts should shift from increasing physical abilities to making all previous collected human knowledge more accessible.”

Quite simply, Google was not designed specifically to drive traffic to websites as some seem to think. It was designed to provide knowledge, to give answers. Yes, to satisfy the human need for information.

Colossal, Mind-Bogglingly Huge Numbers

No other company has traversed the web so thoroughly in an effort to capture and catalogue its content. Recently, Google’s Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts went on record to say: “Google has had sight of 30 trillion URLs.” Adding, “Google crawls 20 billion pages a day” and “100 billion searches are conducted per month” on Google.

Thirty trillion URLs is a giant number, to say the least. Yet, it represents only a fraction of the entire (exponentially growing) world wide web. Not only that, the fact that Google has had sight of those URLs does not mean it has crawled and indexed that content (or that it ever will).

It’s vitally important to understand that Google does not have access to all content on the world wide web. And given the pace that end users now generate content, and the limitations that the protocol of the world wide web places on crawling, it’s not likely that it ever will.

In short, Google is the gateway to the fraction of the web it has managed to index. It is not the gateway to the entire web.

And to place something else into perspective, of the 100 billion searches conducted on Google every month, just how many of those are “informational queries” compared to commercially related, or actual “shopping” queries?

Information retrieval scientists and professional marketers alike understand the importance of determining the user “intent” behind a web searcher’s query. This study, Classifying Web Queries by Topic and User Intent discovered that the general search query breakdown for search engines was:

  • 50 percent informational queries.
  • 30 percent navigational queries.
  • 10 percent product queries.
  • 10 percent services queries.

I checked these findings directly with Google and this maps with its own internal research. It turns out only 30 percent of all search queries trigger ads (Google makes the majority of its ad revenue from products and services related queries, as you’d imagine).

So it’s a fact: More people use Google to satisfy an information need than a shopping need.

Actually, when it comes to shopping, Google is the one playing catch-up. Mind-boggling numbers are one thing, but there’s something else that falls into the world wide web, mind-boggling category for me. And that’s the complainers supporting and motivating the FTC investigation into Google, who at the same time are reporting fabulous success stories to investors and stakeholders.

At no cost to the end user, Google provides an abundance of information, likely incomprehensible in its breadth and depth to the information scientists quoted at the beginning of this article. It’s a technological gift that keeps on giving to a global, information-hungry society.

This is a unique “give first, take second” combined philanthropic and commercial business model. It’s that which makes Google a more popular online destination than most of its (all take, no give) FTC-supporting complainers.

End Users Demand a Richer Experience

information-carouselThe web 2.0, constantly connected web surfer has much more sophisticated information needs. And these needs are frequently better satisfied by an experience richer than just a blue link and a web page.

If an end user is looking specifically to learn dance steps to The Charleston, for instance, then a video is a much more useful information resource than a text-based web page. A picture is a better result for someone who wants to know what a snowflake looks like under a microscope. And an audio file would be a better result for someone wishing to learn how to tune a guitar.

And yes, from time-to-time a commercial or shopping related query returns Google’s own products or services in this richer mix of results. But regardless of where they’re ranked, in return for the billions of queries satisfied without any commercial leaning whatsoever, why shouldn’t they?

As I’ve stated before, why shouldn’t Google have a slice of the commercial pie that has been created for all online businesses as a by-product of its own web information retrieval success?

In fact, the end user now expects this much richer experience from all search engines. Interesting to note that, although Google was first to take this multi-modal/universal search approach, when this article was written, Microsoft returned the higher number of “blended”-type results. Even more interesting is the fact that one of Microsoft’s main complaints to the FTC regarding Google is for that very reason.

Web search isn’t a solved problem by far. Google may be more advanced in its efforts to make sense of part of this never-ceasing digital deluge. But it too is threatened in its ability to satisfy the growing, personalized “concierge”-type search heralded by Siri, which is why, like its competition, Google is looking at fascinating other ways of satisfying the human need for information.

In my opinion, government time and money could be better used supporting this type of innovation at companies like Google – as opposed to pandering to the sour grapes of a few envious competitors.


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