The GoogleWeb

I don’t like to pick on journalists for not being perfect, but I’m constantly surprised at how reporters seem willing to give Google credit for the resources available on the Web. About two years ago, USA Today ran an article entitled “This the Google side of your brain” where the reporter suggested that Google is

the key to a huge repository of trivia, the kind that once rattled around in the back of our minds. Call it our auxiliary brain.

Obviously, the play here is that Google = your extra brain, a vast repository of information. But reading the above words a little more closely, what the reporter is technically saying is that Google is the key to that repository of brain-like trivia, which is more accurate. Google has provided an index to make the repository more useful, but it did not create the repository.

This distinction is important for reporters to bear in mind, especially given the immense and justifiable goodwill that people have toward the Web. E.g., I don’t know how many times someone has found the answer to an obscure question and I’ve heard the comment “isn’t the Internet amazing.” And it is.

But this enthusiasm for the Web is commonly translated into goodwill toward Google, which acts as the key to its content. For instance, consider this gushing review of life at the Googleplex and query how much of the praise would apply if Google were a company producing a standard consumer product like–I don’t know–stuffed dogs. (And that wasn’t ridiculously wealthy.)

But despite my concerns about the easy way reporters seem to associate Google with the greater body of useful knowledge that it indexes, I’m actually starting to see a closer connection between Google and the Web. The Web and Google are blurring.

As I explain in more detail in this article, the AdSense era makes the conflation of Google with the Web a little more accurate. When Google began offering a broad base of small-scale website owners the ability to easily display and obtain revenues from contextual ads via AdSense, this essentially meant that Google was buying up screen real estate in the broader Web. The amateur and professional Web content that Google used to index is now increasingly partnered with Google in an advertising business relationships. So Google–or it’s advertising arm–is starting to bleed into the content of the Web and the mechanics of content production.

There are some interesting implications from this. A couple years ago, I observed in an article (Digitial Attribution) that much of the creativity on the Web seems to be fueled by reputation economics. Many people create content on the Web without any clear economic motivations. They do so, in part, because they desire and receive certain forms of valuable social recognition for their contributions.

That’s still true, in the main, of much of the Web today. But AdSense may be changing things a bit. Consider an article from October of last year, where USA Today wrote about how “Gray Googlers” strike gold. The article starts with this story:

Jerry Alonzy figured he’d be working into his 70s at least.

As an independent handyman at the mercy of weather patterns near Hartford, Conn., he’d always made a decent income that rarely grew.

Then he found Google (GOOG), and his life changed. Alonzy, 57, now makes $120,000 a year from the ads Google places on his Natural Handyman website, and he couldn’t be more thrilled.

Good for Jerry, of course. And good for Google, of course, which perhaps made $40,000 or more (???–no one seems to knows for sure) off this particular partnership.

The article suggests that Jerry, and many others like him, are into Web content creation for the money (not the egoboo or community). At the same time, the article at times lapses into a familiar celebration of the potentials for zero-cost community sharing and amateur enthusiasm on the Web. See, e.g., this bit:

“When you retire, you have to have some interests,” says Needham. “This is my indoor activity. I did a search online for how to create a website and found lots of good help out there for nothing.”

The Internet, he says, opened up a new world for him.

“I started searching for other sites about bees and met some people from Australia with similar interests. We’ve since become friends, and I went to Australia last year to visit.”

That’s a pretty old story about the Web connecting distant people with similar interests who want to share information. But now we tack a new dimension onto that, explaining how Google’s advertising revenues are becoming, for many of these “retired” amateur hobbyist communities, a large part of the driving force behind Web creativity and community.

At $250 a month, Needham’s site generates revenue in line with its niche audience of folks who want to learn about bees.

“I bring in enough to fund a free vacation to Key West every year for the family,” says Needham, a retired Department of Defense employee.

Note that these folks are now being identified by the journalist as “Gray Googlers” rather than “Gray Web authors.” It seems their interest in and dependence on the revenues they obtain from Google are what now defines them as a creative group.

The amateur has changed. Micro-payments may have failed to make the amateur Web writer a part of the traditional commercial marketplace. But micro-advertisements seem to be making inroads.

So here’s a slightly related question: could Google make the Web even more of commercial enterprise? If you were Google, holding the key to the Web (as USA Today says), wouldn’t it possibly be in your interest to give your many AdSense partners like Alonzy and Needham–who effectively send money your way when you send search traffic their way–a higher rank in your search results?

We don’t know what Google puts into its ranking formula, but as far as I can tell, Google doesn’t do this. Would we be better off (or at least no worse off) if Google did do this?