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Opinion: What will Google’s single search result end game mean for content?

9to5google 9 new countries - Google Search 2015-04-30 09-04-04

The Knowledge Graph is a controversial—but now fundamental—part of using Google, and for most casual browsers of the web, it’s nothing but an added convenience. It already does a great job of figuring out which pieces of information are most important and accurate, and gives them to you directly within the Google search page—there’s no need to go digging through countless results to find what you want. I myself even find it useful very often, usually when I’m searching for specific facts. Something like “When was George Washington born?” is a great example.

But I’m also wary of how intelligent it has gotten in recent years, and how much more integral to the Google experience it is becoming. Not only is Google pulling content from crowd-sourced Wikipedia articles, it is now getting smart enough to pull some of the content I’ve written on this website. Knowledge Graph has been known to bring death to many pages hosting all kinds of content, with lyrics websites being the perfect example. But what happens when Knowledge Graph and its Quick Answer box are so smart that you don’t need to browse the web at all?

As you can see above, I was caught a little bit by surprise this morning when I found my own words copied by Google and placed in a Quick Answer box at the top of my search query. Yes, the search query was very specific (as I was actually looking for the article it gave me), the content was not necessarily unique, and the box did provide a link back to the content that I wrote. But why does Google get to decide that the words I wrote are simply public content that can be stripped and pasted on its own site? How is this different than a content scraper copying and pasting the entirety of my content for pennies in ad revenue?

I would argue that it might be worse, and I think all signs point to the fact that it’s the direction Google is hoping to move more and more over the next several years. All the way back in 2005, Google’s Eric Schmidt was quoted as saying that providing just a single search result—and always knowing what it is you’re searching for—is Google’s end game. “When you use Google, do you get more than one answer? Of course you do,” Schmidt said. “Well, that’s a bug. We should be able to give you the right answer just once. We should know what you meant.”

Google’s end game is to only give you one search result—to be intelligent enough to know what it is you want. But what if that piece of information is available from many different sources? And furthermore, what if Google just decides that it can scrape the most reliable sources of information, and then present it as its own (like it did for me today)? Not only will this mean that any source of information rather than the one Google chooses will be completely thrown out, but even the one that Google picks—if it does what it’s doing now—will be copied and devalued.

Obviously this isn’t much a problem for most sites yet, but lyrics sites (just as one example) are effectively dead in the water since Google added lyrics results to the Knowledge Graph. Some would argue this is something the lyrics sites should have seen coming, that they shouldn’t have been as dependent on Google search results. And maybe this is partially true. Looking at the bigger picture, many content-creating websites have long been moving away from a dependance on Google to finding most of their traffic come from social media (read: BuzzFeed), and this model seems to be doing very well.

But even as the web evolves, as the way people are using it changes, the problem here is not that Google wants to be a perfect and smart window to you finding the best content. I would hope that the content I create is often in that number one position, that Google would deem the things I make to be valuable enough to take that spot. I think that Google eventually being able to provide just a single search result would be beneficial in a lot of ways: content creators would be required to make their content unique, there would be competition—to make better content—to take that spot, and I think that the quality of content getting the spotlight would inherently increase.

What I have a problem with is not as much Google deciding that any one piece of content is the one I’m looking for. Google has always done that, and will always do that. And over the next several years, it will only get smarter and smarter. But why exactly does Google have the right to take my content and claim it as its own? Sure, journalistic websites (such as this one) may copy & paste content and provide proper sources to the information, but they almost always provide some added value to make the content their own. Maybe the example I’m using involving Nexus Player availability countries isn’t the best example (as this content is definitely very cut-and-dry). But Google stole my words nonetheless, added nothing of value, and simply gave me a link.

Is that not what content scraping websites do? It may not be much of a problem yet, but as Google’s Knowledge Graph continues getting smarter, content creators might need to move away from Google dependance even more. Which, maybe, isn’t a bad thing. For now, optimizing for Quick Answer boxes is just another piece of the SEO puzzle, but in the future, it might mean that content creators need to rethink how they get people to land on their pages.

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Avatar for Stephen Hall Stephen Hall

Stephen is Growth Director at 9to5. If you want to get in touch, follow me on Twitter. Or, email at stephen (at) 9to5mac (dot) com, or an encrypted email at hallstephenj (at) protonmail (dot) com.