Google: The Accidental Monopoly

This past weekend, I introduced my oldest to her first official game of Monopoly. We’ve played other children’s versions before, but this was a full on, old school battle down Ventnor Avenue complete with Luxury Tax and Free Parking.

I took it a little easy on her, not buying every property in order to give her a fighting chance. At one point she asked me, “What’s a monopoly?” I explained to her the goal is to own the whole board, thus creating a monopoly where the other players have no choice but to pay you with every move they make.

I started to think more about a world with no choice, and it brought me back to the world of search.

The “M” Word and the Big “G”

Saying the “M Word” is taboo enough, much less mentioning it in a column about the big G (I can feel myself being removed from the index as we speak). Just to be clear (as well as to remain on the holiday gift list), I don’t think Google is evil or has the intention of controlling the world. As with any good company, it wants to make great products and crush its competition. That’s the American way.

You can’t fault Google for being successful. Yahoo and Microsoft both have tried to succeed in search, but haven’t been able to do so.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if one can really be a monopoly without meaning to be. Google took over the search world because it had a better product.

This hasn’t always translated into the same competition-crushing success with other applications (see Talk) but it has allowed it to push products that may later have a bigger impact (see Chrome). These products allow Google to hook users deeper into its tools and provide more information that it can use to keep its dominant position.

Google has become an accidental monopoly. Technically it doesn’t have a monopoly, but it has enough market share that it can throw out changes which help its business while impacting yours. You’re just along for the ride.

Does Sidewiki ‘Do No Evil’?

The way Google functions as a monopoly is most notable in how its new functionality can drastically impact the online landscape — case in point: the newly launched Sidewiki. This feature generates a sidebar in which a person with a Google account can contribute their comments on a wiki page. Once these comments are added into the sidebar, they can be shared on social networking sites and viewed by any user who visits that page and has Sidewiki enabled.

Google believes this is a useful feature because these comments will be helpful to users visiting the site. Again, it looks useful, but in a product-pushing move this will also help the adoption of its toolbar and its enhanced features — both things that Google wants.

While the pretty YouTube video makes Sidewiki look like a Disney movie, what happens when people use this as a soapbox for complaints? Sidewiki creates the ability for someone dissatisfied with your company or product to post that complaint, regardless of accuracy.

In particular, regulated industries such as health care and banking now need to worry about the impact on their brands. On the competition side, what’s to stop an “anonymous” competitor from posting a coupon or competitor site that takes a sale away from you?

Google doesn’t provide a way for Web sites to opt out of having Sidewiki appear alongside their content. Nor does Google allow site owners editorial powers to remove or reply to the comments of other users. As someone who works closely with health care companies, how do you not provide them with the ability to remove clearly inaccurate comments?

Google allows the site owner to make a permanent comment that stays at the top, but that doesn’t solve the problem. My Web site is my home, and Google is allowing others to spray graffiti on my property.

Proceed With Caution

Growing up in New York makes you cynical by default. Being cynical isn’t the same as being paranoid, but it’s a fine line. When you’re paranoid, you think that there was someone behind that grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza. When you’re cynical, you think the NBA engineered the 1985 draft.

I fall somewhere in the middle, but I often think of the saying, “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me.” It helps me keep perspective and spot a larger plan at play — Google’s accidental monopoly.

Whether it’s the SideWiki, trademark updates, or other new enhancements, Google’s clout allows it to play around in a way that can negatively impact your brand. Unless new policies cost you more than you make on Google, you won’t ever stop buying Google, right?

Imagine taking a stand and saying that you will pull your campaign down. What’s that business impact? Can you really afford that or don’t you have to play along? Even if you and several others took a stand, does this create enough of a dent in Google’s revenue to force change?

If you’re leaning toward the negative or you’re even on the fence about it, you have all the reason there is to be cautious when dealing with the big G.

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