Google has undergone dozens of significant evolutionary phases over the years, without ever really abandoning its original, simplistic model: giving users an easy, simplified means of finding the content they want on the Internet. Gradually, it’s added new services to make life more convenient for its users as well as paid options for businesses to get more visibility and more customers. Thus far, it’s been a mutually beneficial system, with happy users, happy business, and a reliable search engine format that millions of businesses have leveraged through SEO.
For better or for worse, that system is about to change. Google could become what is essentially one giant shopping cart, and it could either revolutionize the way we make transactions online, or it could create a monopoly that forces thousands of small businesses to give up on competing online.
To track Google’s trajectory, we first have to look at the origins of Google advertisements. AdWords, one of the most popular digital advertising platforms around, started as a simple way for Google to monetize its universally popular product. By competing with each other for ad space on Google’s otherwise traditional search engine results pages (SERPs), companies help establish fair prices for that level of visibility and users, in turn, have a handful of sponsored options mixed in with their otherwise traditional results. The system has worked well for more than a decade, but Google has since pushed for more business options.
Google shopping is a way for searchers to quickly compare products between popular online shopping outlets. At first, Google Shopping operated through AdWords directly, but ever since 2012, it’s been an independent product. Near the end of 2012, Google forced merchants to start paying Google for the privilege of having their products listed—a switch that many were reluctant to make. Until now, these ads have served as a source of referral traffic for participating businesses, but this model could be about to change.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Google plans on revealing a new “buy” button for its Google Shopping ads when viewed on mobile devices. Upon clicking such an ad, a user would be taken to a customized Google landing page that will walk them through the full transaction. It essentially cuts out the middle step of visiting the participating business, which is a bigger deal than it might seem.
This isn’t an entirely new feature. Already, Google has offered integrated services like appointment booking and food ordering within the walls of its own Search and Maps services. The buy button in Google Shopping could just be another step in the direction of Google controlling these transactions from beginning to end.
Content hidden behind paywalls has been traditionally ranked lower than free content in Google’s search engines, but this approach might be changing in the near future. Paid music and video content is already showing up conveniently in online searches, and paid written content may be the next logical step. If that happens, users could soon be scrolling through a list of pay-to-read or pay-to-watch services rather than the torrent of free content giveaways that currently exist.
It’s also important to note that Google has been making moves toward building a search engine that doesn’t need to direct people elsewhere. The Knowledge Graph, Google’s breakthrough information retrieval system, gives users direct answers to simple questions, forgoing the usual route of browsing through potential answer providers in a list of results. The Knowledge Graph will only grow in breadth and complexity over time, and eventually, it may completely replace the need for users to seek out individual companies or organizations for answers. The goal would be, presumably, to give users everything they need in one Google search results page.
It’s hard to say what Google’s motivation is, or what their long-term plans are exactly, but it certainly seems that in its ideal world, Google will be the one-stop-shop for all consumer needs, from information and research to service provision and buying options. Anyone looking for information or answers to questions will find those immediately within the Knowledge Graph. Anyone looking for specific content will find it behind a paywall. Anyone looking for a service will find that functionality integrated into one of Google’s products. And now, anyone looking for a specific product will be able to buy it through Google directly.
In this way, Google would become a comprehensive tool and resource center for users. They would no longer need to browse through or click on individual business pages—everything they need could be found within the overall shell of Google.
To say that this approach would change things is an understatement. Because each business would be allowed to operate as usual, Google cannot be considered as a monopoly of these services—though for all intents and purposes, it would be monopolizing visibility and traffic. With no reason to go to individual pages or individual apps beyond Google, the entire concept of an online brand could change. The most successful businesses wouldn’t be the ones with the best individual web presences, but instead the ones who have done the most to appease Google.
This is a scary possible future for anyone who’s poured their effort into building a great website or optimizing for search engines over the past decade. However, it does offer some distinctly exciting possibilities. Google has treated businesses fairly in the past, and there’s no reason to think that it won’t make this transition slow, easy, and fair for existing entrepreneurs. Though a full rollout is probably still years away, it will be interesting to see how the all-in-one model develops.