Google Play is a new Google product that was released March 6, and it absorbed the Android Market, Google eBookstore, and Google Music products. It competes with other digital content sellers, such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple's App Store and iTunes Store. The move has been met with some criticism, and today I want to take a look at why. We don't want our search to be corrupted, and the idea that the change could do such damage would certainly perturb some. But I don't see how Google advertising its digital content product corrupts search. There is the argument that Google might decide to favor its own Google Play pages in its web search results, similar to an argument that Google could favor pages with AdSense ads in its results. Indeed, Google has done something like that with its favoring of Google book offerings within Book Search (but the severity of this does not come close to that of the possibility of Google distorting otherwise honest result rankings).
The screenshot above is from a search for a book I am currently reading, In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Stephen Levy (I'm reading it on my Amazon Kindle). The "Buy eBook" button is prominent, and instead of providing options, connects you to Google Play. In the nicest interpretation possible, Google sees easing the process of purchase the natural extension of making searching for books convenient. But these two things could be a conflict of interest, and not just a potential one. Google flaunting its own offerings would of couse be okay if Book Search were "Google eBook Offerings" or "Google Play Books," but it's not: Book search is a category within web search, and it is a product that people use to search the open bookasphere (totally just coined that term), just as people would search the open web. Users of search are looking for the best information possible, and a link to buy is information in and of itself. (The information is: this book is available for purchase through Google.) Why not "an eBook is available for purchase through Barnes & Noble?" For a store, digital or otherwise, the answer is easy: people decide to shop at a particular store for their own reasons. They're not looking for the best possible information, information that could lead them to a particular store; they've already picked the store they want to shop at. But Book Search is not a store. If Google really wanted to provide the best possible information, then it wouldn't be exclusive to its own content offerings in Book Search. To be fair, the page for In the Plex, offered a number of options for buying a print copy of the book, but the only option for buying an e-book was through Google (note: Google doesn't sell print books). And that's a little disappointing, since there are other players in the e-book space, and big ones at that: Amazon has at least 60 percent of the e-book market, and Barnes & Noble has about 27 percent, according to the company's CEO.
Where information is concerned, Google is often just information retrieval. But in the case of directing users to purchase opportunities from Book Search, the information that Google provides is a little more Google's responsibility. When I searched for "Public Libraries and the Internet" on Book Search, the Google Books page for the book currently sitting next to me displayed the words "No eBook available." A prominent red button told me to "Get Print Book." Google was offering me many sellers from which to buy a print copy of the book, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble, in the absence of a Google offering. But in the absence of a Google e-book, will Google tell me where I can get a copy from another e-book seller, if one is available? I've sent an inquiry to Google, but I've also gone ahead and found Public Libraries and the Internet on Amazon's Kindle catalogue. Not looked for, found. No e-book available, you sure about that, Google? I also tried this for Human Rights in International Investment Law and Arbitration (Oxford University Press, Google Books page, Kindle), Essentials of Sports Law (ABC-CLIO, 4th edition, Google Books page, Nook), and Forensic Entomology: An Introduction (John Wiley & Sons, Google Books page, Kindle, Nook). Don't ask how I chose/found examples.
Does Google's integration of what is now "Play" into Book Search represent a corruption of search? If we're just talking the integration itself, I don't think so. Corruption is a strong word. Consumers know they can click the "buy" button to buy from Google and they can go to amazon.com if they want to buy from Amazon. Smaller players, though, might be more obscured than if Google Book Search were a more "pure" search product. It's something to consider. But it's not really cause for alarm. What is cause for alarm, however, is when Google proclaims "No eBook available," when there clearly is an e-book available, and it's not clear that it's worth searching Amazon, because after all, Google will tell you when there's a print copy available on Amazon. (I should also note there is a "Find in a library" option that only appears when there is "No eBook available" from Google.)
Does Google's recent "navbar" change, then, represent a corruption of search? I definitely don't think so. First of all, Google Play in the navigation bar has nothing to do with search other than the fact that when you're at Google.com conducting a search, the word "Play" watches over you.
However, Google's placement of YouTube in the navigation bar, in my opinion, does represent a corruption of search. The YouTube link is simply a link to YouTube, just as the Play link is simply a link to Google Play, but unlike the Play link, when you click the YouTube link after entering a query into Google, that query is delivered to YouTube, and thus YouTube becomes one of Google's many search options. But unlike other search options designed to filter your results by a particular type of result, YouTube effectively filters your results based on the statement "from YouTube.com = YES." What's worse is Google has a video search option which filters based on the type of content (video), but it's not on the navigation bar. One can access it by entering a search into Google, and then selecting "Videos" on the left side of the page.
My search for Hello World, filtered to just videos, yielded ten results, four of which were not from YouTube. From a search perspective, there is no reason to be limited to videos from YouTube. And Google wants me to have the best possible search results, right? The argument could be made that the navigation bar is really just a showcase of Google's best and/or most popular products, and among them happens to be some search products, as well as YouTube, which isn't a search product, but for convenience's sake Google made the YouTube link pick up on queries users have typed into Google. I understand this argument, but the YouTube link on the navigation bar is much more prominent then the "Videos" option in search. And since there are lots of videos on YouTube, searching via the YouTube link works just well enough to forget there's a whole web out there. One could get in the habit of just clicking the YouTube link, and never use Google's Video Search. And that, my friends, is why the YouTube link on the navigation bar is a corruption of search. But that corruption does not lie in YouTube's mere presence on that sacred black bar. I would be 100 percent satisfied if the YouTube link just took you to YouTube's homepage 100 percent of the time.
Google Play on the navigation bar does not corrupt search (in my opinion). So what does it corrupt? Does it corrupt the very being of that company we call Google, that mythical company that only has one product and will never, ever expand? More likely, it doesn't corrupt anything. And it's not unfriendly to users. Google Play is a friendly store where all users are welcome to come and shop books, movies, and music, no matter their OS (movies are available for rent). Android users also have apps they can buy.
I think we need to stop objecting to companies promoting their products (or is it just Google?). When Google promotes its products, we talk about it as if the company is abusing its clout in one industry, search, for undeserved gain. Who's to say Google doesn't deserve the fruit of its marketing efforts? When Google wants to start a new venture, should they play a game of hide-and-go-seek until they're discovered? Is this for added integrity or is it to ensure fair play with other companies? I don't think Google would be doing the world a favor by ensuring fair play in this way. Take Google Plus: though it has had its fair share of judgement, I think it's a great product, and Google would be doing the world a great service by promoting it to the ends of the Earth. That being said, Google using its existing products to promote the social network could potentially put the company at an unfair advantage to small Facebook-like startups… if those startups—seeking to serve exactly the same function as Facebook but do it better—had a chance anyway. They don't. And Google Plus won't have a chance to be a real Facebook competitor unless Google continues to do what it's doing, which is simply making people know that another option exists, whilst Facebook retains people simply by virtue of the network effect.
Admittedly, what Google is doing is more than simply making people know that Google Plus exists; there are some legitimate concerns, and I will be addressing these concerns in future posts, but we need to stop being so averse to Google promoting their products. I'll admit, as a Kindle owner, it annoys me that at Barnes & Noble, everything is stamped with "Nook," but that doesn't make Barnes & Noble bad (or evil, in Google lingo) because of it.
Update December 28, 2012: Some of my examples of "No eBook available" books are no longer valid because it appears they are now available on Google Play. Here are some more examples (which may, of course, also become out of date, in time): Dubai Wives (Kindle), War Brides (Kindle), Bringing It to the Table (Kindle), and A Deliberate Pause (Kindle). (Just some random books.)