Recently I’ve come to an important conclusion: Google sucks.
I don’t mean it sucks as a business model, or that it sucks ethically, or that it sucks strategically, or anything grand like that. No, I simply mean that it sucks at doing what it’s been designed to do: surfacing relevant information in answer to search queries.
Naturally if you’re looking for something highly specific – like “the height of Dame Judi Dench” or whatever – then it will do its job. But for anything broader, where it has the choice of serving you from a number of different options – say, “24-hour plumber” – I’d suggest that not only should you take its answers with a pinch of salt, but you should actively avoid them altogether.
The main reason for this (in my view) is that the platform has reached a point whereby any answer that makes its way to the top of the rankings has essentially “gamed” its way there; not by being good at the thing you’re searching for, but rather by being good at Google itself.
Imagine that you wanted to find a virtual assistant, say. You’d have to be pretty naive to simply Google “virtual assistant” and hire one of the options presented to you, wouldn’t you? Any vaguely savvy web user knows that the true model of such businesses is to get to the top of the first page, and then rip off any suckers who are foolish enough to give them a call. This is true of pretty much any searchable service – digital marketing agency, physiotherapist, psychic medium. If you find them with a quick search, you can be more-or-less certain they are not a good provider of the thing in question.
This issue isn’t limited to commercial searches either. The same thing applies to informational queries, such as “how to get over a cold quickly”. In these cases, once again, the winning answers will be those that have been crafted to be the winning answers on Google – which is an entirely different thing from being the highest quality answers in general. I’m sure you can instantly visualise the kind of content I’m talking about:
- Needlessly long, in order to cram as much repetition of the search term as possible
- Maximally cautious, empty, and stripped of all vaguely opinionated angles
- Housed on a platform which Google considers a “trusted source”, which simply means a platform which exists to serve Google rather than readers
I have a few “hacks” to get around this problem, the main one being searching for information on forums like Reddit and Mumsnet, which despite their “unreliability” tend to serve up much richer and more nuanced takes on pretty much every issue than Google does. But for the most part I simply accept that we have almost returned to a pre-internet state, where knowledge is no longer at our fingertips, but has to be earned the old fashioned way.
Now it might sound as if I’m being a bit harsh on Google here, but actually, according to a great essay I read today, I’m actually being charitable.
You see my theory is based on an inherent weakness in algorithmic search (gradual gaming of the system over time), which Google may be powerless to counter themselves. But the bleaker, and perhaps truer view is that of “enshittification”, a term coined by the writer Cory Doctorow, which he explains as follows:
“Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.”
Based on this understanding Google’s erosion isn’t the result of predatory SEO techniques, or anything external like that, but rather is the result of their own internal cynicism and greed. First they do a fabulous (but not especially profitable) job in order to capture users. And then when the users are locked-in they corrupt the product to make it maximally profitable (but much much worse for the users).
Doctorow applies this model highly convincingly to all the big tech platforms, the most obvious of which (because it’s furthest along the road) is Facebook – a site which I dare say few of my readers now use, so egregious has its profiteering become.
You should read the original post as it’s good fun, but the short version is something like this:
- Step 1: Facebook attracted users by showing them the information posted by the people they loved and wanted to hear from. This earned it a critical mass of users that ensured nobody could ever leave, since hey, this is where everyone else is.
- Step 2: It then began cramming users’ feeds with information they didn’t want to see, primarily from media owners seeking cheap clicks which they duly received, and adapted their business models to rely upon.
- Step 3: With both the users and the advertisers now “trapped” in the system, Facebook started to suppress content which directed people away from the site, favouring media that was housed within the site.
- Step 4: And then finally came the endgame; forcing media owners to pay to get their posts seen even by people who followed them, whilst supplementing them with an avalanche of other advertising, driving many into liquidation and gradually making conditions so bad for users that they began to wrench themselves free.
This then is enshittification: a process which Doctorow claims befalls every big tech company as they evolve from high-value-low-profit to low-value-high-profit, and then ultimately, death.
I think there is a lot we can take from this theory strategically, since it directly corresponds to our foundational belief here that:
The ultimate purpose of any business should be to provide value.
Enshittification gives us direct demonstration of this in both the positive and the negative. First we see businesses – Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, TikTok, etc. – beginning their lives with a relentless focus on providing such value, i.e operating with a “giving” mindset. And then gradually we see the shareholder pressure tell, which pushes them to focus on extracting value, i.e. a “taking” mindset, which ultimately drives their destruction.
Where I would build on Doctorow’s thesis is to say that this dynamic isn’t only a tech one: it applies to all types of business who are in some way able to “trap” users via some form of scale advantage.
This scale can come in many forms. It may be…
- Network effects, as per the tech brands
- Buying power, as per big supermarket chains
- Manufacturing power, as per big CPG groups
- Distribution power, as per all the shitty media sources favoured by Google
- Financial power, as per any brand who have enough external investment to artificially suffocate their market
Any set of circumstances which results in customers being “forced” to buy the product (whether explicitly or implicitly) creates the condition for value extraction. In other words it creates the condition for businesses siphon money from their customers without providing corresponding value in return.
In the past I’ve called such brands “parasite brands”, for obvious reasons.
Now what are the lessons we can draw from this? I think there are three of them.
1. DON’T TRY TO MAKE MONEY
Many people say, quite reasonably, that the true purposes of a business is to make profit / return value to its shareholders. On a certain level this is true, and it obviously contradicts my definition which says that the purpose of a business is to deliver value. However the reason I think my definition takes precedence is that you can’t earn money by trying to make money.
If you guide your thinking based on the question “how can I make money”, you’ll come up with parasitical “value extraction” ideas such as those which are now damaging Facebook and Google. This is fine if you have their kind of scale advantages which allow you to “get away with it” (up to a point), but let’s face it, you don’t – so instead you’ll simply end up with a grimy and inferior offering which probably won’t get much traction.
If however you guide your thinking based on the question “how can I deliver value” then you’ll shape something more like early Facebook and Google – something people love, which has the potential to gather value (i.e. money) in exchange.
2. YES, SOMETIMES THERE IS A BALANCE TO BE STRUCK
In some cases, rather than going all-in on delivering value, there is arguably a “sweet spot” to be found between value provision and value extraction. This is achieved when you lower your value offered to customers, and raise the value you exact for yourself, but not to the degree where customers think they’re getting a raw deal and leave.
At some point in the past there was probably a moment where Facebook “got it right”; a point where they were making good money but were also tolerably pleasant to use. Perhaps they could have stopped there. But at the same time, we shouldn’t kid ourselves: once you realise you can get away with parasitical behaviour, it’s hard not to indulge it. And you’ll never know how far is “too far” before it’s too late.
3. DON’T FAKE IT
Finally it is now more becoming more and more apparent that many tech brands in particular were built on “giving away value for free” (rather than exchanging it), with the intention of moving to an extraction phase once they’d locked in their audience – a sort of “bait and switch”.
This occurs in cases where the brand operates a business model where it isn’t physically possible for them to be both value-giving AND profitable at the same time.
Someone like Amazon’s entire strategy was arguably founded upon deliberate unprofitability for years in order to trap users and sellers, only to finally sting them when they had nowhere left to go. At a smaller level we’ve seen a similar game attempted by brands such as Casper and WeWork. OK this approach has made some people an incredible amount of money, but at a macro-level it kind of stinks. It’s not far from being a giant con-trick where a false bargain is offered to the market, which is then ripped away when it’s too late to turn back.
Make no mistake great businesses are those who not only offer extraordinary value, but can afford to do so. Value doesn’t mean “giving shit away to get people to like you” (or worse). It means “offering something people want enough to pay you well for it”.
I appreciate that my staunch commitment to value provision above all else may sound a bit idealistic – especially in the face of the many giant success stories who played a different game. But in reality it’s the exact opposite of that: value provision is the only realistic way you can expect to form a successful strategy.
It’s so realistic that even the greatest brands ever created (Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc.) cannot escape its logic, and the enshittification principle demonstrates. They all had to start with value provision. And they are all, to varying degrees, being punished for diverting from it.
For an SME, the situation is even more stark. The chances are you are going up against at least one other brand who does have a locked-in scale advantage. In that scenario how can you possibly hope to compete other than through sincere value provision?
Zoom out far enough and we can even see that this is how markets evolve, and why the same brands don’t stay at the top forever:
- Giants emerge by giving value
- They then switch to extracting value until they push it too far and consumers lose patience
- Replacements then emerge who are committed to giving value once again
- And the cycle repeats
The only brands who avoid this cycle – and there are some – are those who never strike the devil’s bargain, and who continue to prioritise the giving of value even when they could get away with rinsing the market for all its worth.
No matter where you are in your growth cycle, to be one of them would be my recommendation to you.