What doesn’t Google know? When I can’t figure out how to spell a word, I Google some approximation of it. If I want to remember what’s in a martini, Google’s got my back. When I can’t remember the lyrics to a song, I Google it. In all of these cases, more and more often I never ended up leaving Google to learn what I need to know. Over the years, the Google search engine has unsubtly shifted from a product that primarily sends users to other websites to, first and foremost, a place that provides lots of answers on Google.com. When the first thing on a Google search page is that handy martini recipe—sourced from some cocktail site—that’s what Google calls a “featured snippet.” A lot of other websites absolutely hate it.
Including Genius. On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the lyrics site had gone public with an allegation that Google had scraped lyrics from its site and published them in its results. Genius had a rather clever method to figure this out. The company explained that it uses different styles of apostrophes throughout its lyrics—formatting that it found in lyrics on Google search pages. This, Genius claims, has resulted in a drop in traffic to its site. The complaint comes as the Department of Justice is reportedly preparing an investigation into Google for its anti-competitive practices. Google says it uses another third-party site to source its lyrics results, LyricFind, which told the Journal it doesn’t source lyrics from Genius. Whatever is going on, Genius says it ordered the different apostrophes in such a way that when the two styles are converted to dots and dashes they spell out “red-handed” in Morse code.
Genius isn’t the only company to have a problem with Google allegedly scraping and reposting its work. In 2017, Yelp filed a complaint with the government against Google, claiming the search giant had scraped more than 385,000 photos from Yelp to use on its own business listings. In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission found that Google had been scraping content from sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Amazon, noting that when competitors asked Google to stop, the company threatened to remove their search listings. The Wall Street Journal cites data from the web analytics firm Jumpshot that found 62 percent of mobile searches in the month of March on Google were “no click” searches, meaning the user didn’t visit another website after completing the search.
There’s a reason to find all of this worrisome, even if it may seem like a niche web-traffic matter. Instead of an internet where sites link to each other, creating a vast global network of information, Google is vacuuming up more and more of the web onto its turf. While it might be convenient to just Google whatever you need to know and have the answer right there, Google’s above-the-links results aren’t always that great. (It’s not uncommon for Google’s knowledge panel to insist that people are dead when they’re not.) And it has the potential to suck the life out of the internet, which was supposed to be a place where a thousand flowers could bloom—that is, a place where anyone could create a site based on their interests or business idea and visitors would be able to find them.
Now, more and more, the internet is just Google plus Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and a handful of other platforms and stores that dominate the vast, vast majority of web traffic—and, in many cases, digital advertising too. It’s rare to navigate to a site that isn’t a platform without going to Google first. It’s become so common that Google even lets you search other sites from Google. The furniture site Wayfair, for example, can be searched from Google.com. Same with Target, Walmart, Craigslist, and eBay.
When Google discourages people from visiting other websites, we’re not only losing a more diverse internet experience—we’re losing context. Google scraping answers from Wikipedia to display in its search snippets means we no longer need to go to Wikipedia as much. But when we don’t go to Wikipedia, we don’t see the citations the volunteer editors use to link back to their sourcing. We also don’t see that we can edit Wikipedia too. Nor do we see Wikipedia’s donation buttons, which the site relies on to keep going. The same goes for recipes. I think it’s annoying that online recipes have a tendency to begin like the preface to a personal memoir, but stripping out that context and just displaying the ingredients list, as Google does when I search for “cornbread recipe,” means I’m also missing out on tips the baker offers and other notes about how to play with the recipe to get different results.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are starting to notice. Earlier this month, representatives in the House launched investigations into Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon, spearheaded by Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island who chairs the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on antitrust. They’ll likely probe whether Google is intentionally using its dominance of search to keep people on its site rather than incentivize them to visit other websites, which would be anti-competitive, to put it mildly. This is on top of news that Trump-appointed officials at the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have agreed to divvy up antitrust oversight between the four companies. White House officials are reportedly “supportive” of the increased scrutiny toward potential antitrust action.
In the meantime, Google may decide to scale back on its own and reduce the use of its featured snippet tool to avoid the extra scrutiny. The problem with anything Google does on its own, of course, is that it’s unlikely to do anything that will actually threaten its dominance. And it’s not like there’s anywhere else to go—I doubt most people who use Google now are about to switch to Bing anytime soon. Besides, when I search for “search engine” on Google, it doesn’t show me other search engines to use. I wonder why.