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The end game enshittification of Google

AI has been on everybody's minds recently, with new AI product launches happening left, right, and centre. In the SEO industry, there's been a long-standing joke that technical messiahs annually predict the death of SEO. Is the end nigh?

If this is the first time you've come across the term enshittification, it's a concept that, while yet to be officially recognised, is starting to gain mainstream use. I first saw it mentioned a couple of years ago in the Financial Times article 'Enshittification' is coming for absolutely everything

But what is it? It refers to "the gradual degradation of online platforms, where initial user-focused benefits are replaced by profit-driven decisions that exploit both users and business customers, ultimately leading to the platform's decline." (Thanks ChatGPT).

How do platforms deteriorate over time?

The process typically follows these stages:

Stage One: Attract Users with High-Quality, Free Services

Platforms initially offer valuable, user-centric services to attract a large user base. The focus is on providing exceptional user experiences and building trust. Get as many users onto your platform as possible, hello ChatGPT.

Stage Two: Introduce Monetisation

Once a substantial user base is established, the platform starts monetising its users. This may include advertisements, premium services, and partnerships with businesses. We're seeing this with the decrease in TikTok's content quality right now. 

Stage Three: Prioritise Profits Over User Experience

Over time, the platform shifts its focus from user satisfaction to maximising profits. This leads to increased ads, sponsored content, and data exploitation, often at the expense of the user experience. At this point, companies have gone public and have to answer to the shareholders. The best example for this stage I can think of is Reddit. 

Stage Four: Exploitation and Decline

The relentless pursuit of profit results in a significant decline in the quality of the platform. Users feel exploited as their data is harvested aggressively, and the platform becomes cluttered with ads and low-quality content. This eventually drives users away, leading to the platform's decline. “Here lies Twitter / X. RIP.”

Google’s upcoming AI advancements spell trouble

Google's latest keynote (Google I/O' 24) bolstered an impressive array of AI features related to their Gemini generative AI model. Features such as AI overviews in search, photo, video, and workplace are all due to roll out in 2024, so we're seeing a big shift in the Google product suite. A shift that I predict moves Google from stage three to stage four in the enshittification journey. 

Google is still clearly king in market share of search engine search data. Stat Counter has its share at 90.91%, and Statista reports it as 81.95%. However, one thing they both have in common is that they have both shown a decrease by a few percentage points in the past 12 months. 

The sceptic in me sees a worrying trend in the move away from useful content to AI and sponsored ads. In my previous blog post, I've covered this in detail about the rise in SEO spam and how it's here to stay

A few questions arise from these worrying trends

  • How much can we trust AI content?

  • How useful is it?

  • Is our data safe?

  • As we monetise platform experience more and more, will they eventually push users away from the platform? 

Let's dig in. 

Google announced it's moving its primary focus from user-centric experience to profit-driven decisions. 

Not exactly in those words. But Google announced moving to a new search results page prioritising AI features and ads. "More choice leads to more opportunities for advertisers. You may have noticed that we already show ads above and below AI overviews. These ads are matched to the user's search query." On these shopping pages, we'll now see the organic results below two sets of ads and an AI overview.

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A less sceptical person might ask, "Surely, more personalised search results driven by AI will be more relevant and lead to a better experience?" Maybe. 

My main worry is that by removing the human experience from recommendations, everything becomes a bit bland and basic. Does Google really know the best headphone recommendation for me, or is it happy to sell that lead to the highest bidder under the guise of personalisation? There's a reason more and more people are turning to Instagram and TikTok searches when looking for recommendations on experiences, holidays, and restaurants. Viewers want honest feedback, although it's debatable whether that is what influencers are presenting.

What does this mean for us as SEOs and marketers? In the short term, we need to gear up for decreased impressions from organic searches. This will be especially prominent on long-tail searches (searches that contain a long string of words) that are generally more informational and question-led. It also means that the significance of being high up on the first page of Google is more important than ever - it's a general UX rule that the further a user has to scroll, the more likely it is that the user will drop-off. 

In the long term, the brands that have invested in the SEO strategy (and perform well already) will continue to do so. However, the 'dabblers' will likely move their budgets more and more into sponsored ads to get the coverage they seek. 

It is yet to be determined how helpful users will find the AI content. But if they do, we'll likely see the rise in ChatGPT as a viable alternative to 'Googling' something, leading to a decrease in the search market for Google. 

Privacy and Data Concerns

Take these musings with a pinch of salt, as my opinions on these things can be Orwellian and fearmongering. It's no surprise that Google wants to track us across multiple products and services. The more data Google has on us, the more valuable we are to it as a product. 

This is why so many of the product launches in Google’s latest announcement aim to improve user retention and connect the user across all of their apps. 

  • Aim 1 - Use Google for search and generative AI

  • Aim 2 - Use Google to understand and sort through your photos

  • Aim 3 - Use Google for your workspace 

  • Aim 4 - Use Google as an assistant and give it access to everything on your phone 

"Building Google AI directly into the OS elevates the entire smartphone experience. Android is the first mobile operating system to include a built-in, on-device foundation model. This lets us bring Gemini goodness from the data center right into your pocket."

The data that Google can now build up about us has just gone from 8-bit to 4k.

A meme about google search privacy
While Google tries to express its commitment to privacy, it's very non-committal. There certainly needs to be more concern about how a language model will use this data. There have already been clear examples of AIs using bias across race, gender, age, and other protected characteristics that you typically wouldn't want to be profiled. And ethical concerns aside, the dangers of huge sensitive data breaches are more concerning than ever due to the sheer volume of data it will have about users. 

But what does this mean for marketing? 

In the short-term, users should benefit from more personalised ads. This is a good update for advertisers as it means they are more likely to reach the right audience and, in theory, should get more results from their marketing budgets. 

In the long term, we’ll probably see an oversaturation in adverts across apps and devices. This will lead to an overall decreased experience on Google products. Whether users choose to migrate to another platform depends on how aggressively Google monetises their audience.

Vicious Cycle of Platform Development

As Google continues to roll out its extensive AI features and integrates them into its ecosystem, it's clear that we are witnessing a massive shift in the search landscape. Google's focus is moving away from enhancing user experience and towards maximising profits through increased ad placements and extensive data collection.

For marketers, this means adapting to a landscape where AI-generated results and sponsored ads increasingly overshadow organic content. While there are short-term benefits regarding more precise ad targeting, the long-term implications could include user fatigue, decreased trust, and potential migration to alternative platforms.

Users might have concerns about data privacy and the quality of AI-generated content. So, it will be interesting to see what alternatives, if any, pop up to alleviate these concerns. Platforms that prioritise high-quality, authentic content will see a rise in popularity. 

A man drinking a cup of tea at the office