This is a story about the web, AOL, Google, Google+, and why too many eggs always end up in too few mediocre baskets. The short version: Eventually everyone wants to be AOL.
The medium version goes like this: The AOL of the 90s is a universally recognized symbol for what the internet should not be, and how the web will always be better and more innovative than what one company can provide. AOL’s demise came at the hands of the open web and search engines like Google, which made it easy to find content without the heavy hand of one company’s portal. Now, after 13 years of growth, the Google portal looks nearly as much like AOL as it does the search engine that helped displace AOL—and that’s a bad thing.
Now, the long version:
In the Beginning, There Was the Web
In 1968, Douglas Engelbart presented a talk later dubbed The Mother of All Demos (!), so named because in his demonstration, he introduced a handful of new technologies that are now central to modern technology (and to modern life). Those technologies included, for example, the mouse, video conferencing, word processing, and hypertext.
Today, you no doubt know what the mouse, video conferencing, and word processing are. You may or may not know what hypertext is, but if it sounds familiar, that might be because it makes up the ‘HT’ in the ‘HTTP’ at the beginning of every web URL. In essence, hypertext is a technology that allows text on a computer to reference—or link to—other text (or resources like images, videos, etc.). It’s the technology that makes the World Wide Web possible, and it’s the technology that makes the internet so powerful as an open platform. Any person, from anywhere on the planet, can link from one place to another, creating a web of information and ideas that flow freely, openly, and beautifully.
In 1989, that’s essentially the system that “father of the web” Tim Berners-Lee proposed, and the rest you sort of know: The web is awesome. But it’s not without problems.
The First Problem: It Was Hard to Find Anything
The web wasn’t exactly an instant hit. It’s a nice idea in theory, but before the web could be truly useful for any normal person, the user needed to have internet access and be able to actually find things to link together. For consumers of the internet, there was no easy way to discover things on the web.
That’s where services like AOL come in (back before it was Aol). In the earliest days of the web, AOL aimed to be an online portal for people unfamiliar with the web. In fact, AOL was around for roughly five years before users had access to the actual web as opposed to AOL’s own closed off internet service. AOL was a portal of curated content, products, and services for paying customers. These included, at one point or another:
- Instant Messaging
- Aggregated news
- The Netscape web browser
- Various search engines (see Danny Sullivan’s history of AOL search)
Looks familiar, doesn’t it?
AOL was at one point the most popular internet service provider, maxing out at 27 million users. Essentially, for much of its reign, AOL created an internet ecosystem that lived completely outside the web. It seems almost inconceivable now, but among other reasons, this worked because 1) it wasn’t easy to find things on the web and 2) when most of us got on the web for the first time, we had no clue what to do. AOL made it easy.
(This is a sweeping history of AOL with much left out and glossed over. For a fascinating history of the 90s-era AOL, see Harry McCracken’s history of AOL in press releases.)
And Then There Was Search
A couple of things changed that eventually, and inevitably, killed AOL. First, the web grew up. Slowly but surely, people started creating great web sites, apps, and other tools that were better, and more compelling, than what AOL could offer. AOL is one company, with a specific point of view, and the notion that they’d be able to do everything better online is silly.
Second, Google (and other effective search engines) made search a realistic way of finding things on the web. New-to-the-internet users no longer needed a portal to show them what to do on the internet. They could use Google’s groundbreaking search engine to find what they wanted. The open web won out.
Google’s best-in-class search engine helped make that happen. That’s why Google pulls in billions of dollars every year. But, like an AOL in reverse, Google started building its own portal.
Build, Acquire, Copy, and Shut Down
Since then, Google has built, acquired, copied, and shut down more services than most web companies could ever dream of. In the early/mid-2000s, Google was building great things.  They brought us Gmail (2004), Google Maps (2005), Google Reader (2005), and Google Calendar (2006)—some of their best products to date. These were genuinely strong services pushing the boundaries of what a web application could do, and some of them were true originals. 
Around 2006, Google stopped making their most innovative products and started buying innovation instead. For example, they bought and rebranded Writely to Google Docs (2006) and GrandCentral to Google Voice (2007); Etherpad was swallowed by Google Wave (2009) and likely, eventually, incorporated into Google Docs; and Google famously purchased YouTube (2006).
More recently, Google’s approach changed from “We can do that better!” to “We can do that, too!” They built Google Knol to compete with Wikipedia (launched 2008, closing this April). Not counting the unknown-in-the-US Orkut, Google Buzz was their first misguided attempt at competing with Facebook (launched 2010, shuttered 2011). That didn’t work, so they’re trying again with Google+ (launched 2011).
The Google Portal
Google’s current direction shouldn’t really come as a surprise. With enough success, every company trends toward world domination. It is against years of Google philosophy. Pando Daily’s Sarah Lacy points to a 2004 Playboy interview with Google co-founder Larry Page (full quote via Gizmodo):
PLAYBOY: Portals attempt to create what they call sticky content to keep a user as long as possible.
PAGE: That’s the problem. Most portals show their own content above content elsewhere on the web. We feel that’s a conflict of interest, analogous to taking money for search results. Their search engine doesn’t necessarily provide the best results; it provides the portal’s results. Google conscientiously tries to stay away from that. We want to get you out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible. It’s a very different model.
The promotion of Google+ throughout search results, without question, violate Page’s ideal. But Google, like the AOL of old, is aiming to be the online portal for people unfamiliar with the web. Rather than point users to the best results the web can provide, Google’s pointing users to their products—products that are increasingly less worthwhile. In Page’s words, this “search engine doesn’t necessarily provide the best results; it provides the portal’s results.” 
Google’s company philosophy contains similarly lofty but abandoned guiding principles. Among them:
Focus on the user and all else will follow.
Since the beginning, we’ve focused on providing the best user experience possible. Whether we’re designing a new Internet browser or a new tweak to the look of the homepage, we take great care to ensure that they will ultimately serve you, rather than our own internal goal or bottom line.
It’s best to do one thing really, really well.
We do search. With one of the world‘s largest research groups focused exclusively on solving search problems, we know what we do well, and how we could do it better.
You can make money without doing evil.
We never manipulate rankings to put our partners higher in our search results and no one can buy better PageRank. Our users trust our objectivity and no short-term gain could ever justify breaching that trust.
If a few of those principles seem to contradict the Google you know today, you’re not alone. Lots of people have noticed that Google’s getting in the way of itself:
- I’m Not Here to Make Friends – Farhad Manjoo, Slate
- Google’s New Plan: Annoy You Into Compliance – Matt Honan, Gizmodo
- New Google Accounts Require Gmail and Google+ – Alex Chitu, Google Operating System
- “Ask On Google+” Links Appearing In Google’s Search Results – Danny Sullivan, Search Engine Land
Interestingly, in September of last year, Google internet evangelist (and designer of TCP/IP) Vint Cerf argued that Facebook could be the next AOL. I’d argue that there’s no significant difference between Google and Facebook in this regard, especially with the recent Google+ integration. Every day, Google pushes harder to keep users inside its ecosystem, discouraging them from venturing elsewhere whenever possible. Every day they look more and more like the AOL of old.
Today, Google’s product page currently lists 46 different products and services, including all of the staples of AOL’s old portal.
Every Sufficiently Large Web Company Wants to Become the Internet
Google’s not the only giant web company who wants to grab every piece of the internet you use. Every sufficiently large web company wants to become How You Use the Internet. Facebook does it. Microsoft does it. Yahoo does it. They build and buy and compete with one another to become your portal, and to deliver “sticky” content. 
For those of us who want to use really great products, this is a fantastic bummer.
Because Google is so big, they don’t need to make great products anymore. They just need to make a sufficiently viable product. Their user base and platform is so large that by simply launching something, they’ve got a competitive advantage that a new startup that actually cares about making something great could only dream of. That’s why all of Google’s most recent product successes have been acquisitions. It’s biggest failures products have been knockoffs. 
It’s About the Information, Stupid
To be fair, Google makes one thing clear in their guiding principles: It wants information. The more information Google has, the better it is at search, so in a sense, they’ve remained true to their goals. When Google pimps Google+ throughout their products, including search results, they may be more interested in the information a new Google+ user will provide than they are in making more money by keeping you on their domain.
The problem is that Google doesn’t care about making a great social network. No one at Google woke up from a fever dream in a cold sweat, grabbed a pen and paper, and sketched out a brilliant and inspired new idea for a web app called Google+. They looked at Facebook and Twitter and the threat these sites pose and thought, “Shit, we need to make a competitive social network.”
Unfortunately that’s not how a great product is made. That doesn’t mean Google+ isn’t useable, or even adequate. It is, sort of, and I’m sure they’ll continue to make it more palatable to people who want an alternative to Facebook or Twitter (of whom there are many). But Google+ is a calculated business decision, not an idea. (Google Hangouts, for what it’s worth, offers great group video chat.)
Google does a lot of things right, and for that reason, we love a lot of Google products. Really. Love. (How can you not find at least some love in your heart for a company that’s putting serious resources into driverless cars?) I’ve been writing about how to use Google products to make your life easier for years. On a whole, the company has changed the world for the better. But it’s never been harder to take their famous “Don’t be evil” motto seriously. It’s not, despite the “evil” brush strokes, a moral issue.
Google is a for-profit company, and companies want to make money. I’m not saying that Google the company is doing anything unexpected, unusual, or even, necessarily, wrong. It is what it is. A lot of us are invested in Google because we like some of the things they make, and as a result, have held them to a higher standard. Sometimes they’ve met our lofty expectations. Often, they won’t.
As a user, you can voice your dissatisfaction (if you are in fact dissatisfied) by exercising your choice. There are, luckily, no shortage of great alternatives to Google products. (I like DuckDuckGo as an alternate search engine; plenty of others like Bing.)
Google doesn’t have to continue backtracking in AOL’s footsteps, though. It doesn’t have to copy every other successful web site, or buy every interesting startup that comes along, gut it, and then shut it down. Google can accept that it can’t dominate every aspect of the web, and it can re-focus on making products that are new and innovative rather than redundant and adequate.
Much like AOL before it, giants like Google and Facebook want to be your internet. You probably shouldn’t let them.
 In a frustrated response to Google’s search change, engineers from Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace released a Don’t Be Evil bookmarklet that tweaks the functionality of Google search’s new social results to provide the best social result for a search based solely on Google’s own search-ranking algorithms. Essentially, they’re providing the best social results based on Google’s own search rankings as opposed to Google’s interest in promoting their new social network. [go back]
 Incidentally, Google Wave is the only thing Google’s done recently aimed at creating something truly original. It failed, but it was undeniably an original—if overly confusing—idea.) [go back]
Photo remixed from somechalj/Shutterstock.