[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 19 December, 2003, 13:22 GMT
Is Google good for you?
Technology analyst Bill Thompson wonders why he cannot stay away from Google, even though he has his doubts about it.

Google headquarters
The Google empire stretches into millions of computers
Christmas is a good time for contemplation, reflection and coming to terms with issues in one's life.

So I've been reflecting on my on-off relationship with the world's most popular search engine and one of the web's biggest advertising companies. Yes, it's that Google time of year.

You see, I'm a heavy Google user, almost an addict. I have the toolbar on all my computers, show off at parties by searching Google from my mobile phone, and even like the twee versions of the logo they do at these festive times of year.

I used the site when it first went online, and it was clear that it did a better job of indexing web pages than any of its competitors like Hotbot, Alta Vista or Lycos. I talked about it to my friends and wrote about it, becoming one of the early adopters who did so much to build the company's reputation.

In 2000 I even interviewed co-founder Sergey Brin for Internet Magazine, and found him charming, interesting and completely devoted to making a better search engine rather than making himself rich.

Back then Sergey could say "when users come to Google.com all they want to do is search. And that's our product" and mean it.

Now his search engine is the equivalent of programmes on ITV, there solely to attract eyeballs for advertisers. They may not do banner ads, popups, interstitials or flashing multimedia monstrosities, but more and more of the page's real estate is taken up with paid-for content, and the ads are getting more and more intrusive.

They have even extended their reach far from simple web search, with the Froogle shopping service and the recently announced book site. Both of these are commercial ventures that trade on the Google brand.

Golden days

In my opinion, Google today is far from the great search engine it was in those far-off days, yet I still use it.

Even knowing that it indexes only a small proportion of the web using a technique that too often gives precedence to pages that lack authority or coherence, that it is skewed by multiple blog links and can be manipulated by unscrupulous advertisers, doesn't stop me typing search terms into my toolbar and feasting on the results.

What's worse, I've let both of my children believe that 'search the web' and 'Google' are roughly synonymous, even though I teach my journalism students at City University that they should never rely on a single source, online or off.

How has it come to this?

Bill Thompson
Perhaps it is simply that Google has become the Coke of the web. Sweet, available everywhere, and the first choice of the consumer
Well part of the reason, obviously, is that I'm as lazy as most other web users, and having found something that sort of works, at a URL that I can easily remember, I stick with it.

The people at Google realise this, and so they haven't messed with the home page even though the entire ethos of the company has changed in the last three years.

They know that the simple, stripped down design and the almost childish logo are reassuring both to new users and to aging cynics like me.

They also realise that new tools and functions can help, as long as they don't look frightening or require any serious learning curve. I've got the Toolbar, and I've just installed the Deskbar, which lets you search Google by typing your keywords into a box on your Windows taskbar, at the bottom of the screen.

The success of the Deskbar - and it is getting a lot of attention - is doubly illuminating, because the same functionality has been available in Windows for ages.

On the taskbar at the bottom of the screen you can display an address field to let you type Web addresses in directly, launching Internet Explorer if needed.

If you type in a random phrase then IE will look it up using your default search engine, which in my case is Google.

It can't search News or Definitions or Froogle, but it does the job. Yet the Deskbar is getting all the attention, the online equivalent of the iPod as the season's must have onscreen toy. Google obviously has a stronger brand than IE.

Net controls

Earlier this year I wrote that Google was becoming so powerful that it should be regulated by a new 'office of search engines.'

Google logo
The logo is recognisable straight away
My reasoning then was that the web has become central to many people's lives and that leaving search completely to the market was going to give us poor service and leave users open to exploitation.

I think I've been proven right. Google has been able to focus on its advertising and marketing business, and we have all suffered. If we had OfSearch then it would have required quality of service guarantees, just as Oftel does from telecoms companies or Ofcom will from broadcasters apart from the BBC.

Perhaps it is simply that Google has become the Coke of the web. Sweet, available everywhere, and the first choice of the consumer.

The fine wines and elegant cordials are still available, of course, but Coke outsells them all, just as Google outranks other, more refined, search tools.

Like that other dominant American brand, McDonald's, you seem to know where you are with a Google, and for some people familiarity will always be important.

It may be slightly early for resolutions, but I am going to make one anyway. 2004 will be the year I break my addiction to Google and improve the quality of my searching. I owe it to myself.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific