Commentary - Is Google Sabotaging Search?

By Mike Phillips

Google knows something. Search, as we know it, is dying. And with the release of Knol, a project intended to rival Wikipedia, Google is giving us the  tools to dig the grave, whether we like it or not.

According to Nielsen NetRatings' analysis of searches in November 2007, Google accounted for more than 4.2 billion searches, good for 57.7 percent of all searches for the month. And it's safe bet that many of those searches returned top results from a Wikipedia page. Google wants Knol to get some of that traffic. And even though Google claims they will not give preferential treatment to Knol pages, does anyone really think these pages won't show up in search results?

Add in other user-generated sites taking hold in the SERPs like Yahoo Answers and Squidoo, then throw in the impending release of Wikia (Wikipedia's for profit search property based on user input and advertising) and it's not hard to see how search is changing. Information is becoming a highly-valued commodity.

But when traditional search results get clogged with user-generated material that can be manipulated for profit, what happens to the rest? There are plenty of other, equally important sources of information out  there that will undoubtedly get pushed down in search results, thus lost from view for 95 percent of Web users.

One thing is clear: Knol contributors and Google stand to make a lot of money. Unlike Wikipedia, Knol will contain ads that authors and Google can use to make a profit on their entries. And thus begins the slippery slope.

Many fear, and rightly so, that Knol might amount to a wealth of press releases and sales pitches, further devaluing top search results. With no editorial control (again, unlike Wikipedia, Google will not serve as an editor in any way) expect biased articles to prosper and competition to boom. But that might be exactly what Google wants. More competition means more page views, more activity and more chances for profit. But does it mean real results or a volley of libelous activity? And with planned community features such as user comments, questions and edits, how long until we see people gaming the system - getting their buddies and business partners to pump the worth of certain entries while defaming others?

This could very well be an admission by Google that traditional search is a thing of the past. Google is simultaneously spiking the value of user-generated content while devaluing traditional search. This could end up giving an edge to up-and-coming search engines - ones that develop new ways of search to produce a more balanced or maybe just a different outcome. Vertical search, local search and even social networking are all in prime positions to edge their way into a changing search market. And with tools like iGoogle, customized search and Open Social, Google is prepared to tear down traditional search in favor of personalization. And when traditional search dries up so does Google's competition in the space.

So what does this mean for the Web professional?

Niche search, user-generated content, local search and social networking all become critical for this new style of SEO. It's not going to be enough to just rank high in the SERPs. With these new, user-generated Web properties taking over search results the website owner must diversify and find their traffic in many spots, not just one giant search engine.