Blogs, Wikis, User-Generated Content and Google's Strategy

I've been out of the loop all this week and last, so please forgive me if this post reiterates what has been said around the Web in the last few days. I'm just trying to organize my thoughts about several events:

Google's reliance on UGC It's been pretty obvious since 2002 (when Google bought Blogger) that the company is using its position as the No. 1 search engine to drive traffic to UGC (user-generated content).

Search for anything on Google and, more often than not, one of the first entries points to Wikipedia or (the former gets about 54 percent of its traffic from Google). Search for a movie, you get directed to IMDB. Search for a niche topic, you get directed to a blog. (And not just any blog entry -- sometimes, the SERPs page returns a post that was written just a few days prior.) Today, Google directs you to its own products when you search. And soon, if you search for something that is encapsulated in a video, you'll be directed to YouTube or Google Video or one of the many other user-generated video sites.

Google's reliance on UGC has obvious benefits. One, SERPs are more relevant to the now. If someone out there creates something new, odds are that thing is relevant to "now" and thus, consequently, relevant to what you're searching for today.

Two, by relying on user-generated content, Google is tapping an unlimited supply of free labor. Three, by directing traffic to user-generated content, Google is incenting those users to create even more content. In other words, if you know Google picks up your content (whether in Google search or Google News or wherever) more than other search engines, you're more likely to create with that audience and/or traffic driver in mind. Google is not only betting on the Internet, it's betting on the entrepreneurial spirit of every single person. And that spirit is very, very greedy for attention. [1]

Jimmy Wales is also betting on the Internet, but in a different way Jimmy Wales is also betting on that spirit. I don't have any insight into the mechanisms by which volunteers would manage his new search engine, but it only stands to reason that user participation has evolved since the days when Yahoo tried to edit the Web. And user participation will only continue to grow. Wales is betting on the same Internet trends that Google is. And given a wiki's transparency to vandalism/spam, I would suggest Wales' new project could have a fighting chance at being a better information arbiter than Google. Moreover, I trust Wales to do the right thing. I don't expect his search engine to sell anything but its own search results.

Google has been making some tentative steps in the social search marketplace. What is Google Custom Search Results other than a Google algo + human editors? Google's toughest challenge is to embrace social search while maximizing the use of automated AdSense.

All Google products are UGC engines But Google is facing a small but possibly significant erosion in consumer confidence. By placing links to Google products under search results, Google is becoming less an objective arbiter of information and more a portal to a branded online experience. As Danny Sullivan notes, this transformation -- and the wringing of observers' hands that accompanies it -- has been occurring for years.

Google's strategy with the product tips on SERPs is, again, obvious: Lead people to Google products, which gets more people supplying data to the servers, which gets more information to analyze, which gives us better SERPs and gives Google more market share, and corrals users into a virtuous circle of Google products. The more ways Google has to get data about you, the better Google can serve you.[2]

But what kind of data are you putting in Google's products? If you're like most people, the data is recent information: photos from your trip, calendar items for the future, blogs you read, notes on what TV you're planning to buy. In other words, more recent data for Google to peg results to. Therein lies the beauty of the MySpace deal. By partnering with MySpace, Google gets to sell ads around always up-to-date information. MySpace is a now-ness engine.

What does this mean for other search engines? Now, Google's emphasis on current content puts the other search engines in an interesting position. In order to compete with Google, they too have to emphasize user-generated content (i.e., current content) in their SERPs. If they don't, they become search engines for relatively stale information. To some extent this has already happened. Consider Nick Carr's post last month, in which he notices that the top queries for each search engine correspond roughly to a "type" of person: Google is for geeks, Yahoo is for horndogs, and AOL is for geezers. This approximation of demographics fits well with my experience. The folks at home still use AOL. [3]

Who cares about France? So where does this leave Europe? Despite France's perennial grousings, Chirac is right to worry that Google will Americanize -- or at least non-French-alize -- the Web. Take a look at David Sifry's numbers from October 2006: France is responsible for only 2 percent of the world's blog posts. The rest are mostly from Japan, China and the United States. So if Google is predisposed to focusing on blog posts and other forms of UGC, the French are truly in danger of being overlooked, at least in terms of continuing global relevance in a combined pool of SERPs.

So, like I said, this was just a high-level overview of how I see things. Some of it has been said before. Maybe it's obvious to you, maybe not. At any rate, happy 2007.

[1] Much like Time magazine, Google believes that you are the person of the year. And while this may seem like an embarrassment of reputation riches, the truth is that your power, considered by itself, is virtually nil. You're a drop of water in the ocean.

[2] That's not to say that you're unique. You are, but not by a large enough amount to make much of a difference when it comes to ad sales. Web 2.0 has been all about UGC, but that UGC, in turn, is all about similarities between people. Those similarities sell ads. The Web is a big Venn diagram for marketers.

[3] Whether those top queries are actual data points in the search logs or bullet points on a marketing plan remains to be seen.