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Why Google should be looking over its shoulder


Type "Vancouver restaurants" into Google and the world's most popular search engine will show you about 15 million results and 40,000 reviews. But what if you just want one or two?

As Google Inc. ends its first decade of existence atop the online business world, its biggest threat may well be the evolving social networks that allow users to query a close circle of trusted sources - rather than the Web at large - for information, according to one of the top media industry writers.

"Social networks are a real potential threat to Google," says Ken Auletta, the New Yorker Magazine's communications writer for almost two decades and the author of a new book about the rise of the search giant. "If I can Tweet or Facebook a question and get 20 answers from people I trust, that's a much more valuable search."

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Indeed, Mr. Auletta says, Twitter's value as a search engine is the major reason Google looked to buy it this spring.

In his book Googled: The End of the World As We Know It, Mr. Auletta describes Google as a force that many traditional media firms initially dismissed, much the same way companies were reluctant to embrace myriad web-based business models that eventually turned audacious startups into massive businesses. The author points to examples such as the music industry's reluctance to embrace web-based business models and the newspaper industry's reluctance to move into the world of online classified ads.

But Mr. Auletta points out that Google's engineering-driven corporate philosophy also caused it to react slowly to the realities of the business world - from government lobbying to addressing allegations of monopolistic behaviour.

"They though it was outrageous that people could buy access in Washington,' Mr. Auletta says. "But that's the way the game is played."

Recently, Google has moved aggressively to establish a stronger lobbying and public relations presence in places such as Washington, D.C., and Ottawa. The move is in part spurred by a heightened awareness of claims by critics that the company is large and dominant enough to engage in anticompetitive behaviour.

Mr. Auletta, who covered Microsoft's own 10-year antitrust battle, says he sees some similarities between how Microsoft first responded to those allegations and Google's response.

In Microsoft's case, Bill Gates was hurt that his government could question his motives - he thought having everyone on the same operating system was a social good. "He was blind to the fact that the government was questioning his abusive power at Microsoft for a while before the lawsuit - engineers don't know how to measure things like fear," Mr. Auletta says. "The same thing happened at Google - Google engineers are not sensitive to things that can't be measured."

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But despite a growing concern among some Google critics about the company's dominance, it continues to control the lion's share of the web search market. Google sites accounted for about 65 per cent of the U.S. search market in October, according to market research firm comScore. Yahoo sites came second with 18 per cent.

However, Google argues the numbers aren't as clear-cut because the definition of a search site is much more broad - users searching for products may go to Amazon or eBay; users looking for real-time results about everything from restaurant openings to breaking news may instead opt for Twitter. Under that broad definition, Google argues, its position is a lot less dominant, and the threats to its business varied.

Mr. Auletta points to another Microsoft analogy when he describes the potential future threats to Google's business. In a conversation he had with Mr. Gates in 1998, the Microsoft head admitted his biggest worry was someone in their garage designing a new technology he hadn't even thought of.

It turned out that the people in the garage in 1998 were Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Mr. Auletta says.

"Who knows who's in the garage today?"

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