The Danger of Corporate-Branded Information

Today, the major search engines are widely perceived as service providers that study the world’s accessible information, organize and index to provide good, relevant search results. They make their money by presenting targeted ads alongside these results.
There is one tacit and very important understanding in all this: the world’s information is non-proprietary. In other words, it is the byproduct of thoughts, ideas, communications, and such that are going to get created anyway and not solely owned by any one entity (especially a search engine). The Big Three know how important impartiality and credibility is. If people stop trusting you, they will stop using you.
But will the search engines only be services that index information that is created elsewhere? Or will they create their own information? Yahoo! and Google already have their own versions of Answers. These are services where “experts” (or anyone really) can answer questions. That “data” is created and housed by the search providers. Nick Carr points out that there’s an odd disparity in search results that seems to favor their own versions Answers. He astutely points out that the key metric in all this – relevance – seems to have been compromised.
I don’t disagree. In fact, I think this speaks to a larger trend that I think we’re going to start to see: these “service providers,” in order to stay competitive and stay ahead, are going to do more than just passively index the world’s information. They’re going to move towards creating it and owning it. Much of Google’s strategy is about not only being the after-the-fact search engine, but the place where information is created or acquired, is housed and is shared. Documents. Emails. Monitoring search habits. Even more pervasively, providing their own versions of Internet access.
It’s all about getting a head start. To compete, it’s far easier to help create that body of knowledge than to go find it. You can have a hand in not only the artifact itself, but the context, motive and structure that brought it to life.
The danger here is towards the integrity of information. If left unchecked, these utilities (and they are really evolving into “utility companies”) will shift the ownership of information from that of the public domain into their own respective proprietary arenas. What may be local listings or health advice from one provider may be very different for another. People today assume that information is somehow sacredly protected and relegated to the public realm.
Ultimately, it is the tension between getting your customers to trust you and getting ahead of the competition. We can all hope that a freely competitive milieu will somehow police itself, but that’s wishful thinking in my opinion.
As search engines evolve into information creators and proprietors, the “good faith” bar should be raised. Will that information make it back into the world? How quickly? In some modified form or as it was intended? The Big Three are no longer passive spectators. They aren’t even just active participants. They are orchestrating. And with that power comes a greater responsibility to maintain the integrity of information – however way it comes to be.

1 Comment The Danger of Corporate-Branded Information

  1. Rough Type: Nicholas Carr's Blog

    The dog that didn’t bark

    I’m a little confused here. Late Sunday night, as Search Engine Watch noted, Yahoo’s corporate search blog tooted its own horn about the seeming success of the Yahoo Answers service. In the course of the post, it was noted that some of the user-submitt…

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