Google does not have social media but it has the web

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Google does not have social media but it has the web

Skip ahead to: Down the rabbit hole

Google’s latest blog post clarifies its intention to make its personalised cards more personal. The idea is that the activity cards returned as part of the results to a user’s search query will draw on previous search history and interactions to yield a more customised response, whether it is in response to a search for recipes or to purchase a product. This is one of the many features Google has tested in its endeavour to integrate its search engine more firmly within the growing paradigm that centres around the “Individual”. 

Servicing the individual has become the means by which a platform can control and act as the gateway to a plethora of consumer touchpoints, where each touchpoint represents a distinct pocket of economic value. 

Where the individual has become the locus of value capture, giving rise to the business models we know as killer applications (and the tandem valuations) we need to better understand the context of said individual. The individual sits at the centre of three realms of digital experience –  the self, the private self and the public self – best represented by three concentric circles. (We have previously written about this paradigm as part of an analysis of Connected Intelligence platforms). 

The core – the self: the inner circle comprises the individual themselves and defines the parameters of their fulfilment 

The inner bound – the self in the private context: the personal world within which humans form close, meaningful ties to family, friends, colleagues and so on. 

The outer bound – the self in the public context: the individual’s interactions with the world more broadly. “

Increasingly, consumer tech companies endeavour to serve the individual across these three realms of experience in an attempt to win the individual’s mindshare. The user’s experience of the digital world can be observed as an aggregate of the consumer technologies servicing the respective realms. 

The core – the self:

  • Hardware interfaces: iPhone, Amazon Echo 
  • Software: Android, IOS 
  • Tools: Search (Google), Payments 
  • Browsers: Chrome, Opera, Firefox

The inner bound – the self in the private context: 

  • Social media: Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn 
  • Messenger apps: WhatsApp, Telegram, FB Messenger

The outer bound – the self in the public context:

  • Public Profile: Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, Twitter, Social Login 

Social media, messenger apps and platforms that facilitate public profiles service the individual’s functional needs in their private and public context. Google with their slew of products in the past like Google Plus and Google social login have attempted to address the user’s needs of the ‘self’ in the private and the public bounds, respectively.

However, Google Plus never really took off with the public and was eventually phased out. Google social login, whilst very successful, has limited touchpoints to an individual’s identity as defined by interactions within the private and the public context – rather it acts as the point of access to platforms like Facebook which hold the more pervasive and deeply rooted touchpoints with users. 

At first glance, it appears as though Google does not hold a competitive edge over its social media counterparts when it comes to servicing the individual in the private and public contexts. Rather Google’s efforts are more focused on servicing the innermost bound – the core of the individual self.

Google Search makes the entire web its ecosystem

Given that search is the primary tool for navigating the web, Google’s augmentation of search with increased personalisation and custom options leans toward becoming a highly tailored tool. The intent to create an individualistic search tool has significant flow-on effects for the end state of Google’s search engine as we know it. 

It is a transformation from a static, one-way ‘query and retrieve’ navigational tool, into a two-way interaction – where the results returned reflect an implicit understanding of the query in the context of the individual. This aptly demonstrates Google’s process of transformation from a search engine to a portal for the individual. The clear distinction between Google and other ‘portals’ like Amazon or Facebook, rests in the fact that Google treats the entire web as its ecosystem. Its portal is platform agnostic and provides the user with a unilaterally open and (ideally) unbiased interaction with the web. 

When we think about consumer platforms, they function on two primary goals – to service the platform and to service the individual, where the feedback loop between these two goals is largely siloed. In Google’s case – where the web is the platform itself – it functions on servicing three goals; the search tool, the siloed platforms that exist on the web and the individual. The feedback loop here enhances the navigational tool and therefore enhances the portal for the individual and other platforms, in perpetuity. 

Google’s evolution from navigational tool to personal assistant 

What we see Google endeavouring to become is really a smart personal assistant that could enhance the individual’s experience of the digital world. Google is not alone in its endeavour to become the personal assistant to the ‘self’. Capturing this point of interaction has become a dominant driver of competition between many of the big tech killer platforms at the moment. For example, Apple is leaning into its iOS and mobile ecosystem as the primary portal or personal assistant. Amazon as a primarily e-commerce platform, has a stake in the competition through Amazon Prime memberships and Alexa with its voice portal capabilities. 

However, despite these competing forces, Google has two points of defensibility in creating a personal assistant through its tailored experience of the web. The first is that Google is platform agnostic, and the second is that Google has the navigational capabilities of its search engine – which will for the foreseeable future remain an untouchable point of strength. Therefore, the ability to serve the individual’s needs in the ‘self’ is better positioned as closer to a common good than that of siloed ecosystems such as Amazon and Apple. As a common good, the position google wants to take, is that of a ‘necessary’ augmentation to any other portal that might ever eventuate. 

Already Google’s navigational search capability makes it a virtually mandatory component of all existing portals, but Google won’t stop there. In the absence of holding a stronger touchpoint to the user’s ‘self’ in the private and public context, Google will seek to further consolidate its stronghold over the servicing of the individual’s core. All the iterative features, the testing and the feedback loops are a deliberate focus for Google as it attempts to dominate the experience of the individual and become an irreplaceable personal assistant. 

Down the Rabbit Hole

1. Interfacing through voice, the race to dominate the home

“Tech companies’ approach to reach the consumer within their home has been through the combination of an AI assistant paired with a smart speaker, a voice portal to the digital world. In thinking about transcending interactions beyond mobile or desktop, voice-based interactions are an almost natural evolution. The real motivator is to become the gatekeeper of our digital interactions in the home insofar as they evolve beyond the mobile and the desktop.

For Big Tech the voice portal represents two-fold value. The first it helps to bulwark their existing core propositions from erosion. For example, Google dominates search and will want to ensure that it retains that dominance even as search evolves to include voice-based search. Similarly Google and Apple’s role as gatekeepers of software through the Android and iOS app stores and Amazon’s dominance in e-commerce benefit similarly by capturing and dominating any evolution of these propositions through voice. 

The second is the more important value to pursue. It is that the voice portal and all of its interactions represent an opportunity to create new and fertile fields for Big Tech to laterally expand its core proposition. The closest representations of this lateral expansion is perhaps the app store. The mobile app store acted as the gateway to the consumer’s experience of the mobile phone. Similarly, when wearables became mainstream, smartwatch specific app stores focused on leveraging the smart watch’s specific mode of interaction determined the consumer’s experience of wearables. In a similar vein, the AI assistant and speaker combination act as the app store equivalent for voice specific interactions. Just as existing digital services built for the mobile and the smartwatch, they will build for voice-based interactions by integrating with voice-enabled AI assistants.“

Source: Interfacing through voice, the race to dominate the home – 4th Quadrant

2. Servicing the experience for ‘the self’ necessarily creates filter bubbles

The web is a vast entangled jungle that requires a great deal of effort to navigate meaningfully. Information marketplaces act as the filter for a user’s experience, layering algorithms with user profiling for optimisation. 

“Many sites offer personalized content selections, based on our browsing history, age, gender, location, and other data. The result is a flood of articles and posts that support our current opinions and perspectives to ensure that we enjoy what we see.“

Social media platforms create natural filtering processes driven primarily by users followed by algorithms and profiling. 

“…we all tend to follow people whose views align with ours. When those people share a piece of content, we can be sure it will be something we are also interested in.”

In the endeavour to create user stickiness and loyalty, there is a clear necessity to create ‘filter bubbles’ dictating what we encounter online. 

“In his revolutionary book Filter Bubbles, Pariser explained how Google searches bring up vastly differing results depending on the history of the user. He cites an example in which two people searched for “BP” (British Petroleum). One user saw news related to investing in the company. The other user received information about a recent oil spill.

Pariser describes how the internet tends to give us what we want:

Your computer monitor is a kind of one-way mirror, reflecting your own interests while algorithmic observers watch what you click.”

The nature of filter bubbles is to cause echo chambers or a narrow view of the world based on personal preferences, interests or ideologies. With less competing viewpoints coming to the fore we can speculate that there may be negative societal impacts stemming from such echo chambers. However, whether this is worse than what we had prior to the digital world or not is another question entirely. What is apparent though is where there is far too much information on the web, navigation becomes a pain point. Platforms solving for the experience of ‘the self’ find competitive advantages when they create filter bubbles, not intentionally but out of a necessity to create a more holistic user experience. 

Source: How Filter Bubbles Distort Reality: Everything You Need to Know – Farnam Street

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