Why Google has to get platforms – It’s the future of search

Last week, I shared portions of Steve Yegge’s post (from inside Google) about how Google doesn’t “get” platforms. But why, you may ask, does Google have to get better at platforms? Certainly, open platforms open greater levels of innovation, one reason why Facebook gained the critical mass needed to dominant social networking. That is certainly applicable given Google’s forays into the social space. But there’s another reason, one very germane to Google’s core business. Becoming a platform provider is likely the only way Google can compete in a new search ecosystem.

Consider this recent shot across the bow from Microsoft. They’re opening the Bing backend as a service to be integrated into third party apps. They’re making their search engine a platform. And, according to Yegge, Microsoft does “get” platforms:

“(Microsoft) understands platforms as a purely accidental outgrowth of having started life in the business of providing platforms. So they have thirty-plus years of learning in this space. And if you go to msdn.com, and spend some time browsing, and you’ve never seen it before, prepare to be amazed. Because it’s staggeringly huge. They have thousands, and thousands, and THOUSANDS of API calls. They have a HUGE platform.”

Now, by all competitive measures, Google is beating the Bejezus out of Bing, but pay close attention to this move, because it likely marks the future of web search. Increasingly, we’re going to see a wider and wider gap between the back end algorithms and index of a search engine and the actual search interface. The days of a search engine being a destination are numbered. In this scenario, search becomes a utility, providing a portion of the functional underpinnings of thousands of specialized apps. The search provider of the future will have to excel at three things:

A) Indexing increasingly complex forms of content

B) Interpreting a user’s interests and intent, and then;

C) Delivering the best results given the optimum intersection between A and B

The third part is critical, as the actual delivery point of the results moves outside the scope of the search provider and into the domain of the independent developer. They will rely on robust platforms to accommodate this.

Google is the current leader in A and B, although recent work by Microsoft shows them closing the gap. But C may prove to be Google’s Achilles heel. Google will be reluctant to share their user’s eyeballs with third party developers, because those eyeballs represent the vast majority of their current revenue stream. There will be all kinds of internal pressure at Google not to head down this road. By contrast, Microsoft has nothing to lose by doing this. As Steve Yegge rightly points out, it’s actually a better fit for Microsoft’s corporate DNA, as the development of platforms is familiar territory for them. Being the end destination for users has never been Microsoft’s strong suit. And Microsoft still has reams of cash coming in from other revenue channels, so they will be more likely to share the search revenue pie with other parties than will Google.

Some time ago, Steve Ballmer signaled the possibility of this shift of revenue streams coming from search. Google was able to capitalize on a perfect storm of revenue opportunity, by tapping into the single biggest concentration of consumer demand in history. But the window of opportunity that has fueled Google’s growth to this point is rapidly closing. The new models will require search providers to slice up the revenue pie with an increasing number of partners.

It will also require those partners to wholeheartedly embrace platforms. Let’s see if Google can “get” that.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider October 27, 2011