Rubbery Figures, Rubbery Interfaces
Modifying results to suit business needs is hardly new. The Amazon.com online store is a case in point. A mini-industry already exists in which pundits attempt to decode exactly what business policies Amazon.com uses to distort the Amazon Rank—a number that otherwise indicates how well a product is selling. No sane person expects anymore that Amazon Ranks are a simple and transparent indicator of sales relevance. Will search engine rankings suffer the same distortion under the pressures of commerce?
Of course, for Google or Microsoft or anyone, it's risky to complicate the search interface, or distort the results too much. There are always new search entrants such as Clusty and meta search engines such as AlltheWeb that are willing to re-simplify on behalf of the user. All they need is a more humble business argument. That was part of the strategy that Google used to unseat AltaVista, after all. This competitive need for simplicity restricts how much advertising rubbish the engine provider can thrust at the user during the search activity.
If revenue growth from the user base is limited by the need for simplicity, then the only way a search engine company can grow is to do something else as well—another source of complication more properly called brand extension—or else improve how the user's data (queries, anonymized identity, navigational clicks) is crunched on the server. Crunch the data better, and you can sell more focused advertising spots and more finely tuned demographic statistics to your corporate clients.