Google Search and the Tragedy of the Commons


Seth Godin’s post today asks the reader if Google is making the web stupid.

Here’s a brief excerpt:

Google (the source of so much traffic) is under huge pressure from Wall Street to deliver increased profits, and until self-driving cars kick in, the largest share of those earnings is going to come from the ads they sell. To maximize their profit, Google has spent the last nine years aggressively working to increase the share of ads on each page in their search results, as well as working hard to keep as many clicks as they can within the Google ecosystem.  If you want traffic, Google’s arc makes clear to publishers, you’re going to have to pay for it. Which is their right, of course, but that means that the ad tactics on every other site have to get ever more aggressive, because search traffic is harder to earn with good content. And even more germane to my headline, it means that content publishers are moving toward social and viral traffic, because they can no longer count on search to work for them. It’s this addiction to social that makes the web dumber. If you want tonnage, lower your standards.” (emphasis added).

When I read the post, one of my first thoughts was that it sounded like the classic “Tragedy of the Commons”. As explained in Wikipedia:

The tragedy of the commons is an economic theory by Garrett Hardin, which states that individuals acting independently and rationally according to each’s self-interest behave contrary to the best interests of the whole group by depleting some common resource.
…”Commons” in this sense has come to mean resources such as the atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, the office refrigerator, or any other shared resource which is not formally regulated.
… free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately reduces the resource through over-exploitation, temporarily or permanently. This occurs because the benefits of exploitation accrue to individuals or groups, each of whom is motivated to maximize use of the resource to the point in which they become reliant on it, while the costs of the exploitation are borne by all those to whom the resource is available (which may be a wider class of individuals than those who are exploiting it). This, in turn, causes demand for the resource to increase, which causes the problem to snowball until the resource collapses.

Google’s first page search results could be viewed as “the commons” (free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource), and there are individuals and companies who have become quite reliant on those search results to further their objectives. Such individuals and companies will thus act in their own self-interest to have their web sites show up on Google’s first page by lowering their standards, i.e., depleting the value of the Google’s search results.

Examples of such lowered standards, as pointed out by Seth in referencing an article by Aaron Wall include:

“…headline bait, idiotic correlations out of context, pagination, slideshows, popups, fly in ad units, auto play videos…”

Such tactics are perfect examples of what companies and individuals will do to maximize their own self-interest (better search results), by reducing the value of  Google search, perhaps leading to its collapse.

So what do we do about this problem?

Hardin believes that recognizing certain resources as commons implies that they require management. One form of management is to add some form of governmental regulations which limits the amount of a common good that is available for use by any individual. Another form of management is to privatize such a resource, which is what we currently have with Google owning the first page of its search engine results.

I am not sure what the best solution is to this problem, but I agree with Hardin that the first thing we need to do is recognize that it is a problem. That is what Seth’s blog post does, and what Aaron Wall’s post does.

Once enough people recognize “the tragedy of the Google search” for the problem that it is, viable solutions will be created to solve the problem.

Until then, Google search will just continue to get dumb, fast.





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