Google's wavering trust presumption

A large part of Google's success has been driven by trust, but now that the search giant wants to monetise social networking and is distracted with its new phone business, will we continue to trust it?

Google revolutionised the Internet when the service appeared just over a decade ago. The search engine’s clean and reliable results saw it quickly capture two thirds of the market from then competitors like Altavista and Yahoo!.

One of the keys to that success was trust – Google’s users had a fair degree of confidence that the service’s results would be an accurate representation of whatever they were looking for on the web.

With the continuing integration of social media services, local search, paid advertising and travel services into those search results, it’s time to ask whether we can continue to trust what Google delivers us.

Google’s attempt to become a social media service is seeing results being skewed by Google profiles. Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan recently illustrated how Google profiles are changing Google's search results.

One thing that's notable in these searches – and Google’s behaviour in enforcing “real names” on its Plus social media service – is the importance of brands and celebrities.

It’s no coincidence in the example Danny Sullivan shows that typing “Brit” into a Google search comes up with the instant suggestions of Britney Spears and British Airways.

More troubling is Google’s foray into travel with the purchase of  travel software company ITA. The travel industry site Tnooz recently looked at how searches for flights are now returning results from Google’s own service before the airlines or other travel websites.

Another of Google’s search strengths was the clean interface. When advertising was introduced, most users accepted this was the cost of a free service. Today a search result on Google is cluttered with Google suggestions, local business locations, and travel results along with the ubiquitous advertising.

Suddenly Google’s search results aren’t looking so good and when you do find them, you can’t be sure they haven’t been skewed by the search engine’s determination to compete with Facebook or the online travel industry.

If it were only search and online advertising that Google was tinkering with, we could excuse this as being an innovative company experimenting with new business models in a developing industry, but a bigger problem lies outside its core business.

The purchase of Motorola Mobility – which is still subject to US government approval – changes the game for Google. Motorola Mobility employs 19,000 staff, increasing Google’s headcount by 60 per cent.

Google may have only bought Motorola for the patents. Closing down or divesting the operations and laying off nearly twenty thousand staff would be a big enough management distraction, but there is real possibility that Google wants to make phones.

Google's previous attempt as a phone manufacturer with the Nexus One wasn’t a great success. It creates the problem of channel conflict with its partners who sell mobile phones with the Android operating system installed.

Right now those partners are having great success selling phones through mobile telecommunications companies who desperately want an alternative to the iPhone given they perceive, quite correctly, that Apple is taking their customers and the associated profits.

Apart from Apple the incumbents of the mobile phone industry are failing as Motorola sells out to Google and Nokia desperately seeks salvation in the arms of Microsoft.

Microsoft’s failure to take advantage of Google’s missteps is also instructive. Microsoft seem to be unable to capitalise on the conflicts in the mobile handset industry with Windows Phone while its competing search engine, Bing, seems to be following Google’s cluttered inferface and anti-competitive practices.

With Microsoft largely out of the way as an innovative competitor, it has fallen on newer businesses to challenge Google.

In social media we clearly have Facebook and Twitter while in phones Apple is by far the biggest and most profitable opponent, something emphasised by Google giving Android away for free.

The biggest question though is who can replace Google in web search. While there are worthy attempts like DuckDuckGo, Blekko and even Microsoft Bing, it’s difficult to see one of these displacing the dominant player right now.

Which isn’t to say it can’t happen; as we see with the examples of Nokia, Motorola and possibly Microsoft, the speed of change in modern business means empires fall quickly.

For Google, the lack of management focus on its core businesses may well cost it dearly in the next few years if web users stop trusting the company’s search results.