In 2009, the internet was a much simpler place. A consumer would perform a search on Google and voila, content from an unlimited amount of sources would appear.
Consumers would choose the information that they deemed to be the most pertinent to their needs, transact, and all was well in the world.
As the value of the internet from a commercial standpoint sky rockets and the power of social upheaval, as demonstrated by recent social media fueled uprisings in the middle east, is proven, commercial interests and governments are fighting to control their assets. The ‘wild west’ of the last decade allowed the consumer to have access to uncontrolled information and has nearly brought down traditional businesses.
The value of internet business is at a powerful level. Facebook is protecting their user data and not sharing with Google by actively preventing Google from crawling most of its content. Twitter backed out of a deal with Google to have their tweets searched in real time.
Even traditional media is stepping up their fight to protect their content. Many notable print magazines and newspapers, such as The New York Times, will only share a selection of the printed articles online thus enticing readers to buy the printed magazine or subscribe online to get the full article.
In a nutshell, Facebook wants their users to view the web through Facebook glasses, Twitter want their users to view the web through Twitter glasses and so on and so forth the cycle goes. Of course, there are very good reasons why Facebook and Twitter don’t want to share with Google.
In the ‘wild west’ days, the consumer was able to access all of their information from simply performing a search on Google or another search engine, and it was Google’s job to serve up the content. Now, popular businesses and websites are saying “hey, we don’t want Google having free access to our content, so we are going to block them from crawling our information.”
What is happening is that information is being fragmented, and there is an astounding impact on what the consumer is now able to view.
The internet is too important for governments to ignore. Not too long ago, we only had to worry about governments that were out to control the content visible to consumers, and that was a hard enough pill to swallow.
These days, we have more parties controlling what we have access to and what we are able to view on the web. Whether we are ready for it or not, we now have governments, businesses, micro networks, content aggregators, and even hackers that are controlling what we are accessing online.
No one knows what will happen next in the battle to control the internet, but one thing is for sure: there will be a year-end negotiation in Dubai, where 193 nations will gather to revise a U.N. treaty, called the International Telecommunications Regulations, concerning the Internet, and how or whether to control it.
The internet was designed to ignore national boundaries but there are plenty of regimes and corporations that would like to see that change. The United States and other major Western powers are advocates for what many call “Internet freedom,” while many other countries such as Russia, China, Brazil, India, and Iran , are advocating placing restrictions on how people are using the internet and its content.
In an essence governments want to create cyberspace borders and control what crosses their border. This is a conflict that could split the virtual world as it stands today. So, what is the impact on the general public? There are five main fronts in which the consumer is impacted: sovereignty , piracy, intellectual property, security, and privacy.
So what can users do about it? Although nothing in life is guaranteed, users do have a voice. With an on point message, proper organization and enough people backing an idea, users have the power to make a change.
Take the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), for example. With an intense web revolt, incited, in part, by Internet giants such as Reddit, Google, and Wikipedia, invoked the phantom of censorship. The legislation was effectively killed. But as we all know, no sooner had SOPA and PIPA been silenced than other legislation sprang up in their place in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere.
To take fragmentation a step further, we can throw in the wild card with the fragmentation between many different platforms and dozens of different devices. With consumers rapidly jumping between channels, “checking in” on their iPhones, scouring their social networks via their tablets, searching for product information and discounts, and sourcing local information and reviews from new applications, it can be difficult (and nearly impossible) for many retailers to keep up.
Now, content is on more platforms, in more formats and accounts for more contexts. More people are surfing the web via their tablets, mobile applications and mobile phones (each offering different results not only between one another) so much so, that by 2014 mobile internet usage is projected to overtake desktop internet usage.
Search Engine Fragmentation
Believe it or not, people use search engines other than Google. Yes, Google is a force to be reckoned with commanding nearly 74% of the search market share, but Bing, for instance holds around 12% of the search market , and Yahoo controls approximately 12% of the search market.
There are also dozens of small search engines that make up the remaining 2% of the search market share. The 74% market share for Google is all good and well, however, these days those searches don’t have access to all the data on the web.
Although Google is the most popular search engine worldwide, in some areas local competitors are dominant. Baidu is the most commonly used search engine in China, while Yandex is the dominant search leader in Russia.
Aside from the everyday, everything search engines, the fragmentation goes even further, reaching to the specialty search engines; travel search engines such as Kayak, Expedia and Orbitz.
The ability for the consumer to have the choice of where they search is wonderful, but at the same time it adds an additional layer of complexity to search. In the end, it is up to each consumer to find and disseminate the best information to fill their needs, wherever that information may come from.
Tim O’Reilly, an internet expert who heads O’Reilly Media, wrote in 2009:
We’re heading into a war for control of the web, and in the end, it’s more than that, it’s a war against the web as an interoperable platform
Not only was Tim ahead of his time with his thinking, he hit the nail on the head. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Microsoft are among the large companies,“ at war for control of the web," that have a significant impact on the content that consumers are viewing online.
Facebook users have identities specific to Facebook and communicate mainly via internal messages, IM, and wall posts. Facebook plays by its own set of rules, covering everything from which third-party applications may run and how personal data are dealt with, to how you are able to manage your company profile page. Facebook also actively prevents Google from indexing much of its valuable content.
After a two year agreement, Twitter and Google chose to go their separate ways. Twitter chose to not renew their agreement for Google to index their tweets in the Google “real time search”, thus impacting the most up to the minute information that consumers could access.
Since then, Google has observed Twitters rel=nofollow instructions. Agreement or not, Google still is finding tons of content from Twitter through its normal crawl of the web. On the flip side, Twitter did renew their agreement with Bing.
Apple is on an island of its own as far as information control is concerned. From its iPhone and iPad, people mainly get access to online services via applications available only from the company’s “App Store” vs from a traditional browser. As you probably already know, Apple controls which apps make it onto its platform and which ones get the axe .
In the digital world, consumers have become accustomed to obtaining the information they need quickly and without hassle. With organizations controlling their content that is available to view online, the consumer may receive the information quickly in a nicely packaged way but with a question mark. The consumer is forced into a tunnel vision of information, and product and data control.
Where Will We End Up?
Only time will tell just how much this fragmentation may change the Internet as we know it today. We know that the growth and investment into the web has brought us life changing tools and services.
Is the consumer worse off by no longer receiving a truly ‘wild west’ access to data? And will the corporate control over their intellectual property allow those companies to thrive and bless us with more life changing gadgets and services? Or will this process over time hurt the consumer experience in a way that will initiate another yet unforeseen revolution in data access?
It is still too early to say that the internet has fragmented into multiple “internets”, but with billions of dollars and political involvement at stake the battle is being quietly fought in the corporate conference rooms with armies of lawyers.
Once upon a time the internet was a wide open digital world without borders; a true unifier of people across the globe regardless of their geographic location.