Investor money vs. public interest: did Google fail to build a non-evil platform?
Don’t be evil.
That was Google’s official motto, until recently.
Google engineers Paul Buchheit and Amit Patel coined the phrase during a 2002 company meeting. Buchheit, who also happens to be the creator of Gmail, describes the brainstorm session to author Jessica Livingston in her book Founders at Work:
“It just, sort of, occurred to me that ‘don’t be evil’ is kind of funny,” he says. “It’s also a bit of a jab at a lot of the other companies, especially our competitors, who at the time, in our opinion, were kind of exploiting the users to some extent.”
Ironically, that is exactly what many individuals are now accusing the tech giant of doing. Which begs the question:
Has Google morphed into the very thing it vowed never to become?
Google’s corporate mission is to: “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
What was originally a humble search engine is now also a business SaaS provider, a maps purveyor and a pioneer of Artificial Intelligence. Obviously, Google deserves a huge amount of praise, appreciation and gratitude for its many contributions to the world.
But many individuals now claim the tech giant has become greedy, untrustworthy and “too powerful.”
Examining Google’s win-lose mentality
History is abundant with examples of corporations, world leaders and politicians who adopt win-lose mentalities while climbing to the top.
However, we’re in an unprecedented territory — Google is running a monopoly that affects how some of the 7.7 billion people on the planet obtain and interact with information; information that allows them to make both important and inconsequential decisions alike.
Yes, competitors like Yahoo, Bing and DuckDuckGo exist, but the primary-colored provider maintains 93 percent of search engine market share worldwide. In conjunction with Facebook, the company also commands nearly 85 percent of the Internet’s advertising dollars.
This monopolization combined with a growing public concern over data collection, and Google’s increasing omnipresence over daily life, has the tech giant facing increased scrutiny.
As the founder and CEO of Ahrefs (a search engine optimization toolkit), I spend significant time considering how the Internet might be improved upon for authors, entrepreneurs and makers. As such, I’m most concerned with Google’s increasing number of win-lose decisions concerning content creators.
One of those decisions involves a feature called “Featured Snippets.” These selected search results, displayed above organic results and below ads, feature scraped content from websites. The snippets attempt to immediately answer search queries, like this one:
While the feature does provide convenience, it’s often criticized for presenting search-goers with inaccurate information. It also reduces monetization opportunities for content creators like Brian Warner, founder of CelebrityNetWorth.com.
In 2008, Warner started a small media business to detail celebrity financial information. He employed around a dozen people to research, maintain and publish it.
As reported by The Week, Google contacted Warner for permission to scrape his data before launching “Featured Snippets.” Warner says that he declined the offer, but Google still scraped his content.
The worst part? His traffic dipped 65 percent within a month, causing him to reduce his staff by half. Not cool, Google.
More recently, Genius Media Group Inc. told the Wall Street Journal that its traffic is dropping because Google has been publishing its lyrics without attribution. Genius relies upon the search engine to direct music fans to its site where they can find lyrics to popular songs.
The company reportedly “caught” Google by using a series of alternating straight and curved apostrophes within its lyrics that revealed the words “red handed” when converted to Morse Code. As reported by The Verge, the complaint comes on the heels of an impending antitrust investigation against Google by the U.S.Department of Justice.
Such controversies suggest a disregard for the small entrepreneur whose content is scraped and traffic is reduced. However, is that really the best way to treat the content publishers who made your huge success possible?
How content creators made Google rich
It’s no secret that Google would have nothing if no one ever published anything online. In the beginning, we assumed the arrangement of self-publishing in exchange for free traffic was fair.
And, for a while, maybe it was. During the pre-search era, businesses were limited to attracting customers via expensive print advertisements, radio ads and curb appeal.
However, look closely, and you will notice something remarkable about the whole thing:
Google convinced us to write, produce and publish content on its behalf without paying us a dime.
You know who else follows a similar business model?
Newspapers. The primary difference, of course, is that print publications use their ad revenue to pay journalists. Let’s just take a moment to marvel at the genius of Google’s decision to flip the traditional publishing model on its head.
The company created something so revolutionary, and so valuable, that its users never even question the fact that Google makes approximately $100 billion in annual ad revenue from the content its users work so hard to make.
I don’t know any journalists, besides college interns, who would willingly write free articles for The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. To be clear, I am not saying Google is doing something evil.
The platform provides the general public with a useful service at seemingly no cost. However, the keyword is “seemingly.”
Unbeknownst to many, Google isn’t truly free. The search platform’s advertising costs affect users similar to how gasoline prices affect non-drivers. Translation: Just because you don’t fill up a tank doesn’t mean you don’t pay for the price of fuel in the products and services you purchase.
While I don’t think Google is bad for developing this ingenious business model, I do believe $100 billion is too high a valuation for the service they provide — about 10 times too high.
Which leads to a thought-provoking question:
Why didn’t Google ever embrace YouTube’s business model after acquiring the company in 2006?
YouTube utilizes a profit-share model that inspires everyone from celebrities to stay-at-home moms to produce quality content. In lieu of shared ad revenue, professionally produced channels like this, simply wouldn’t exist.
Being venture-backed, Google’s success is measured in terms of growth — not fairness. Sharing ad revenue with content creators would massively dilute the company’s valuation. Due to increasing pressure from investors, Google continually releases new features that make them richer at the expense of content creators.
Are they “evil” for making that decision? No, but it begs the question posed by Reddit-user Mondrahgon: When is enough, enough [in regards to growth]?
Google is unlikely to share its wealth anytime soon. However, that doesn’t mean an alternative search provider couldn’t introduce some healthy competition.
The solution: a 90/10 profit-share model
So, here’s what I propose:
A business model that splits advertising profits with the content creators who make search results possible.
In this regard, the authors could make a living by publishing helpful content.
This business model would allow renowned experts, independent journalists and passionate individuals to spend time creating high-value content; the kind of articles that just can’t be regularly produced on the side of a 9-to-5.
Say, you love pancakes more than anything else in the world. Imagine getting paid to share creative recipes, take photos and instruct website visitors on how they too can make amazing pancakes.
With a search profit-sharing model, you wouldn’t need to fill your pages with advertisements, sell baking pans or ask for donations via Patreon in order to turn that dream into a reality. Add to that the ability to create unbiased content, as your content will finally earn based on value, not by hard-plugging some sleazy affiliate links.
Alternatively, a citizen journalist uncovering corruption on the side of a full-time job, could start earning more while spending less time trying to monetize content. After “going full-time,” the person might invest additional profits into user-friendly databases that organize complex research for public use. Honestly, the possibilities are endless.
If either scenario sounds like a stretch, again, look no further than YouTube. The chart below depicts the platform’s biggest earners:
YouTube’s revenue for 2018 is estimated at between $9.5 billion and $14 billion. Analysts estimate the platform’s creators earn as little as $0.35, or as much as $5, per 1,000 views.
Unfortunately, YouTube doesn’t publish much information about its financials. However, using this table, we can approximate that top-earners receive $0.0015 for every one view.
Considering how much more ad revenue Google SEPR clicks generate in comparison to YouTube views, a Google profit-share model could generate significantly higher returns for top content creators.
Based on a quick analysis, serving one search could pay an average rate from $0.05 to $0.25 in the US. Say Anne from Kentucky helps 4,000 people learn how to build container gardens via her Wordpress blog every month. She would receive $1,000 monthly from the search engine in return.
That extra income might go toward feeding her family, saving for her kid’s college education or marketing her site to generate even more monthly views.
This is just one example of how a moderately successful content creator would be significantly impacted by a 90–10 profit share model. The system would further encourage the best, brightest and most diligent content publishers to rise to the top.
And who wouldn’t benefit from that? Even if you aren’t a content publisher yourself, wouldn’t it be cool to stumble across more high-quality researchers, educators and writers? I think so.
Content creators must unite
The Internet is a global effort to preserve knowledge, free speech and equal opportunity for humankind. Fundamentally, no one should “own” something meant for the good of all.
Those who wish to protect the Internet from unfavorable economic forces must begin taking small steps to challenge the status quo.
For this reason, Ahrefs is publically committing to build a general-purpose search engine based on a 90/10 profit-share model. I first introduced this idea back in March:
Some people cheered me on, while others questioned my sanity in competing with a multi-billion-dollar company.
But here’s the thing: Someone always has to be the first when challenging existing norms. So, why not Ahrefs?
Here’s our plan moving forward:
1. Get people talking about profit share for search.
The concept of receiving automatic direct payments in exchange for publishing content on the Web may sound “too good to be true” to some. However, that’s only because they have grown accustomed to an arguably unfair search model.
Over the next several months, we’ll be publishing more content to illustrate how profit share would benefit content publishers and Internet searchers alike. Increased content quality, financial opportunity and creative freedom are just some of these benefits.
2. Begin developing a new search engine with profit-share model.
We would be thrilled for any major provider to “run with our idea,” but we aren’t counting on it. Which is why Ahrefs has already begun developing a new search engine with profit-share capabilities behind the scenes.
3. Lower barriers for entry.
Finally, we are open to providing access to our crawl data to help other players enter the search field and foster competition.
Our ultimate goal: Attract the attention of larger companies like Microsoft who can afford to bring the idea to scale. In case you didn’t know, the tech giant owns the less-frequently-used search engine Bing.
Considering the platform only generates a fraction of the company’s $120 billion revenue, the organization could easily revamp Bing under a profit-share model. It’s my prediction that the positive public sentiment alone would have greater ROI than existing ad revenue. If we succeed in our endeavors, Google will finally get some long overdue competition for search.
Companies like Firefox are now testing $5/month subscriptions for ad-free news, and Medium is successfully attracting some of the Internet’s best writers with its compensation model. Could our search platform grow into something groundbreaking following similar premises?
Honestly, we’re not sure. But we won’t know until we try.
Thanks for reading.
Are you an online entrepreneur, content creator or search fanatic? What’s your experience with Google? Please tell us your thoughts in the comments below.