If you’ve searched for the name of a movie on Google recently, you may have seen and heard something you didn’t expect: a trailer for that film automatically playing on the search result page.
Google has begun embedding autoplaying videos in the search results of a small number of its users, as first reported by Search Engine Land. “We are constantly experimenting with ways to improve the Search experience for our users,” the company explained in a statement. But even if it is just an experiment, it’s a weird experiment, given that Google plans to block autoplaying videos in its Chrome browser because their research has shown that consumers really, really hate ads that automatically play audio or video.
Whether this is actually about improving user experience or squeezing more revenue out of video ads is a bit of a mystery—Google declined to comment for this article—but the fact that it would toy with doing something that it already knows will annoy users is an uncomfortable reminder of how much power the company wields over the search experience. It’s dominated the market for years, and no matter how big Google got, both users and U.S. regulators have been willing to let it be. If you’re like me, you’ve tried searching through Microsoft Bing or the privacy-centric DuckDuckGo. For many searches, the results are about the same. For some, the competitors surface a useful link that Google somehow buried. Overall, though, it’s always seemed that the Google algorithm is better at finding what I’m actually looking for.
Now that more and more ads are crowding its result pages, though, Google search just isn’t what it used to be. The main results may still be better than the competition, but those results keep getting pushed further down the page. Today, for some search terms, you might not see a single search result that isn’t either an ad or a link to one of Google’s own services without having to scroll down. It’s a minor hassle, but one that makes using the search engine feel a bit like browsing one of the spammy sites the company has long tried to combat. You know, the ones with a mountain of Adsense ads towering above all the actual content.
Google’s revenue keeps growing, but the cost it makes per ad keeps slipping. It only makes sense to make up for it by plastering its pages with more ads. Bing does much the same thing. But the growing number of ads runs counter to the way Google used to run its business—principles that put the user first and that are largely responsible for making it the seemingly unstoppable force it is today.
Years ago, when a team of engineers pitched the ideas of putting ads on Google Image Search results, co-founder Sergey Brin rejected the idea. “I don’t see how it enhances the experience of our users,” he told the team, according to a 2006 profile by Time.
Google reversed that decision last year. “People who search and shop on their smartphones at least once a week say that product images are the shopping feature they turn to most,” Google marketing lead Rob Newton wrote in a blog post announcing the change. “And it turns out, the top questions Google Images users ask us are ‘What’s the price of this?’ and ‘Where can I buy it?’ That’s why we are introducing Shopping ads on image search.”
It was an understandable change. The team estimated that the ads would rake in $80 million in 2006. That was a lot of money to leave on the table even then, and today that number is surely much larger. Showing a few ads in the image search system isn’t a bad thing. But it shows just how much Google’s thinking has changed. Google’s not a scrappy startup anymore. It’s the world’s most valuable company, and its investors want results. And without much serious competition, the risk of customers bolting for another search engine is pretty low.
Autoplaying the occasional movie trailer and forcing users to slog through a page of ads might be slight annoyances, at least compared to the worst offenders on the web. But it’s hard to say the experience of searching the web through Google has gotten better in recent years. That’s why I’m giving DuckDuckGo another chance. It’s worth seeing if it’s improved, and at least it’s not saddled with as many ads. Perhaps the changes at Google aren’t enough to send you into the arms of a competitor quite yet, or to get regulators to take a second look at Google’s search dominance. But it means that the time is ripe for more competition.