I tried to free myself from Google and failed
On this day, 235 years ago, the Second Continental Congress voted for a Declaration of Independence. From that perspective, July 2nd is America's independence day, but the document wasn't ready for another two days. So it's perhaps appropriate timing to discuss the declaration I made on April 4th to free myself from Google. At the time I asked: "Can you give up Google?" Maybe you can, but I couldn't.
Google's antitrust troubles motivated me. In December, the European Commission opened an "antitrust investigation into allegations that Google Inc. has abused a dominant position in online search". An investigation loomed in the United States and, as of late last month, is underway. The Federal Trade Commission is reviewing Google's business practices.
As I explained in April: "Over the coming weeks, I will disenfranchise myself from as many Google products and services as possible. This is a personal exercise to assess just how dominant Google really is and how much of its stuff can be reasonably replaced. If it can be reasonably replaced then Google might not be the dangerous monopoly some people worry that it is".
I had planned to do a series of ongoing stories describing my experience and other services compared to Google's. But almost from the start I hit wall after all with blazing speed and explosive crash and burn. My experience raises the question of how much Google products or services are woven into the very fabric of the World Wide Web.
A Fresh Start
Day 1, I ditched Google TV for Apple TV. That was easy, although I found Apple's product to be inferior. Yes, the user interface is prettier, but I had more content choices on Google's product. That benefit overcame the clunkier user interface's negative attributes. I also swapped the delightful Google-branded, Samsung-manufactured Nexus S for iPhone 4.
Email choices are aplenty. I didn't need Gmail but couldn't do without it. The most logical webmail alternatives, Windows Live and Yahoo, don't (or didn't then) support IMAP. POP3 isn't an option -- and it's simply unthinkable -- in this era of synchronization across devices. My most important email address is hosted with Google Apps. It's a bargain at 50 bucks a year. If Microsoft offered IMAP, I would have pointed the domain to its service. I already had Apple's rip-off MobileMe service, for $99/year, with excellent mail features -- and it could replace Gmail. Since starting my Google-free exercise, Apple has announced free iCloud will replace MobileMe, which shuts down next year.
Google Reader, which is essential to my writing, seemed like an easy switch. But I found that the best web-based or software client alternatives sync with Google Reader. Calendar and Contacts were easily replaced, and there were plenty of options. Because I switched to iPhone 4, I chose MobileMe. I wasn't dependent on Picasa Web Albums, using Flickr instead. Bing Maps replaced Google Maps. I didn't need Google Sync if using MobileMe. Bing Image Search is good enough compared to Google's product. I could go on. Many other services were replaceable.
The Better Search Option
But two services absolutely were not replaceable, and a third one I couldn't give up because of its benefits to my daily routine. The first two: Google Search and YouTube -- and these may also prove important areas for FTC investigation. I expected swapping search to be easy. Just type the URL to a new search engine and go. Bing proved to be the most useful alternative to Google, but nowhere useful enough. Consistently Google delivers more relevant results, at least for my needs, whether at the desktop or on to go. I was surprised, because Bing is so much better than it used to be and the search page is pretty and functional.
Simply explained: When using Google, I rarely need to choose an alternative search engine to find stuff. I usually get what I need. With Bing, I consistently must use Google or alternatives like Ask to supplement searches. While I like Bing and praise Microsoft for making the service so much more useful, it's not good enough for my needs.
I'm lucky, because my livelihood doesn't depend on Google Search. Google had 65.5 percent search share in May, according to ComScore. For businesses and entrepreneurs using Google's keyword and advertising products, this market share is hugely important to them. If a user of these products, I don't see any reasonable way to go Google-free. They're an absolute necessary byproduct of Google's dominant search engine.
Nearly two months into my flailing Google-free experiment, Microsoft filed an antitrust complaint against the search and information giant. Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith alleged that "Google has engaged in a broadening pattern of walling off access to content and data that competitors need to provide search results to consumers and to attract advertisers". Ah ha!
More specifically, Google has put in place "a growing number of technical measures to restrict competing search engines from properly accessing it for their search results. Without proper access to YouTube, Bing and other search engines cannot stand with Google on an equal footing in returning search results with links to YouTube videos and that, of course, drives more users away from competitors and to Google".
I was ready. I would compare the two search engines' results for YouTube and write the scathing story about Google's shenanigans. But I couldn't find any. In repeated YouTube search tests, I found Bing's results to be close enough to Google's -- so much so that I wished Microsoft's service could do as well with general search queries.
That's perhaps good segue to YouTube, which could almost be described as necessary utility, like Facebook is for most social networkers (92 percent of them use FB, says Pew Internet). There are plenty of alternatives to YouTube, I was surprised to discover. Vimeo is my long-time favorite. Here's the problem: Everybody uses YouTube. It's simply impossible to go a day, if not a few hours, on the web without finding an embedded YouTube video. They're everywhere -- ans it's not like companies, organizations or people post there and elsewhere. Many videos are only available at YouTube. Particularly for my work, I couldn't avoid them. YouTube is a necessity.
The site always ranks atop of ComScore's US video rankings. In May: 147.2 million video viewers out of the total 176 million. There were 2.2 billion viewing sessions. No. 2 VEVO had 360 million -- that's right more than 6 times less. YouTube average minutes per user: 311. YouTube is a monster.
That brings me to Google News, for which I couldn't find a service I liked better. Many blogs and news sites obsess about Google News, because placement there can drive beaucoup pageviews. I know some bloggers and reporters closely follow Google News and pitch stories based on what's trending. I don't and recommend against such practice. In recent reporting guidelines, I told Betanews writers: "You write for people not Google's algorithm" and "Google News is a drug. Break the habit. Rich, organic, consistent and long-lasting incoming links are better". The latter comes from well-reported, sharply-written original content (provocative headlines and social sharing matter, too).
That said, I haven't found a service that better collects news from everywhere. My RSS feeds only give access to what I subscribe to. Google News -- and Google Alerts, for that matter -- is useful for tracking breaking news stories. But I don't need Google News. It's a necessary convenience not necessary utility.
The point of this is I failed. If for no other reason than Google Search and YouTube, I couldn't free myself from Google. In December 2010 I asked: "I sold my soul to Google, can I get it back?" No is the answer. I'm a lost cause. So I've decided to reverse the experiment. Rather than be separatist, I'll become loyalist. As I'll explain in a follow-up post, I will try to go all Google products and services. Details will follow.