Wetpaint CEO Ben Elowitz on the Future of Digital Media
This article was published as a guest post at XConomy, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.
I’ve been taking in Google’s recent release of “Search, plus your world” (or SPYW as the cool kids say) over the last several days, reflecting on what it means for Wetpaint and other media companies; but perhaps even more importantly, deeply understanding what it indicates about Facebook and Google themselves. As we all know by now, these most recent changes are meant to make its search more personal by up-weighting social activity in its algorithm, and using each person’s own position within their circles to determine relevance.
You might think that I would be one of the first to jump in the game with Google. After all, my company Wetpaint has been making a massive investment in distributing our content via other social channels, particularly Facebook. We’ve been seeing massive returns. And, I’ve even gone on a limb to predict that Facebook should be implementing its own Web-wide search this year.
Still, when it comes to playing Google’s social games, so far I’ve advocated staying on the sidelines of all their social venues—even their recent business pages. That’s been because even though the stadium lights are on, no one is on the field. More specifically, even though Google has 90 million registered users of the service, we see very little activity of significance among our target audience. But with its new SPYW changes, the question is: Has Google indeed forced companies’ hands?
Unfortunately, they have. And, in doing so, it marks a milestone in the changing mentality of Google. The search company’s great innovation—using the signals of the Web to best determine what the audience really wanted—has now been subverted. The company’s originally unshakable-seeming ethos of mechanistic neutrality has slowly, slowly, slowly, and now all of a sudden given way, and the new precedent is to favor its own business interests over those of the audience.
The result, like it or not, is that companies that rely on search for traffic must hear and obey loud and clear Google’s message that Google will favor those that favor it. It’s a dirty truth, and one far more chilling than the other more technical biases of its algorithm before.
Google has already started infusing search with the content that’s been blessed via Google+. Do a search for “New York Times” and you’ll probably find the New York Times plus.google.com page as the second search result. Search for “Mark Zuc” and you’ll likely see Zuckerberg’s Google+ page (despite the irony) populate as an option in the Google Instant choices.
I haven’t seen this bleed over to news stories yet, but I believe that it’s coming. Soon you’ll do a search for the latest headlines and your search results will be chock full with musings from your friends and non-friends inside Google+.
Google+ may not take off as a real social network, but Google has indicated that it’s throwing its full weight behind it anyway to make the best of what it’s got. Even if consumers don’t adopt it en masse, whatever activity is present will pepper the famous algorithm’s search results.
The irony here is that Google’s pivot toward a social search belies how important that social data is. The company is putting its lock on search at risk to gain a chance at a foothold on social. But what really comes through to me is that a great social search can be a winning product—if it’s populated with the right social data. So far, Google’s is not.
The question is—if that’s what I’m after—won’t I still just go to Facebook, where all my friends actually are (and which Google has adamantly cut out of SPYW)?
While SPYW does force publishers to support Google’s social network, fortunately it will be a temporary sacrifice from publishers during this period of transition from these days of search to a socially wired world. And that forthcoming world looks increasingly like it will be wired not by Google, but by its arch-enemy Facebook. Indeed, by corrupting the quality of their search product, Google may have just opened up a clear product entry into search for their rival as well.