When you want to find something online, where do you go?
Google? That used to be the only real answer.
TikTok? That seems to be the case with GenZ right now, based on the trends I've seen.
Let's take a look at the problems that Google faces right now.
- Things are moving too quickly for Google to keep up.
- Old data sticks around
- People and companies game the algorithm
- Advertising sucks
Things are moving too quickly for Google to keep up.
How often do you look for something, only to find outdated information? Trends come and go before Google even realizes it's happening. Why is that? What steps have to happen before Google knows about it?
Step 1: The thing has to happen. Step 2: Someone has to notice. Step 3: Someone has to care enough about it to create content. Step 4: Google has to find that content, index it, and rank it as important enough to surface. Step 5: Someone has to be curious about it to search for it with terms that are close enough to what Google has decided that the content is about.
Wow, that seems like a lot of steps, doesn't it?
I realized this delay a couple of years ago when I wrote a blog about a trend I was noticing on TikTok. A few days later, I noticed my views spike by several hundred. As a writer who was quite used to getting 10s of views, I was curious as to the source.
Turns out, it was all from Google. I had identified a trend early on, then it started to spread a bit wider, and suddenly, I was on the front page of Google search results for Tik Tok Sea Shanties.
But what do you do if you're early? You have to look for other sources.
Old data sticks around
Tell me if this rings a bell. I'll use a programming story. You're searching for an error message and you get a bunch of Stack Overflow links. Some of them are from several years and many versions ago. So you've got to sort through them, figure out which ones are relevant, if any, and then try solution after solution, only to eventually find out that the bug was introduced in the latest version and it hasn't been picked up by many people yet.
It's not just programming either. What about product reviews? How often are you looking for something and find reviews for products that are no longer made? There are new versions, but are they the same? Do they stack up against the competition the same?
It's hard to tell. Things are constantly changing and you have to sift through the old and try to figure out what's still relevant.
People and companies game the algorithm
This is something that is universally true: if you have a system designed to do something, people will spend a bunch of time learning how the system works and exploiting how it works for their own gain.
Search engines are in a constant game of cat and mouse against people who are attempting to manipulate their rankings.
Early on, it was keyword stuffing and link rings. Now, it's mass-produced AI-generated content. The game changes a little, but it always goes back and forth.
The winner usually isn't the person who writes the best content, because if you aren't learning how to compete against the top players in the SEO game, you're bound to lose.
Everyone is optimizing, so if you aren't, you can't win.
Ok, this may be more me than the others, but I hate advertising. I can't stand it. Nothing is worse to me than being bombarded with ads. I've trained myself to ignore the ads that make it through my ad blockers.
I refuse to have sites with ads on them. That's not an acceptable source of income for me.
Unfortunately, most people don't agree and the majority of sites have become unusable. It spent so long as the default monetization strategy that it became pervasive and destroyed the ecosystem. It wasn't too bad at first, but with the reduction in hosting/development costs and the rise in number of people using that strategy, too many people end up just putting out all sorts of sites that are supported by ad content.
Here's the thing though: ad revenue is going to drop. It's going to require more and more visitors to make those ads pay off. Youtube is trying to add in more and more ads. Even the premium streaming services are trying to figure out how to add more ads in. Because they aren't paying enough.
But that's going to fail because the next generation of the internet won't be supported by ads. It's an inefficient monetization strategy because you're giving up the most valuable piece of the puzzle: the data.
Where Are Things Heading?
In order to understand my theory of change, I think it's important to look at three emerging trends:
What do these trends have in common?
They are being driven by data. In Web3, the idea is that you should keep control over your own data, your data should be inter-operable with multiple platforms, and there is inherent value to that data. I think the biggest mistake the Web3 crowd made was focusing on the data of money though. It made a lot of people a lot of money, but for the wider trend, it set things back, because it enabled all sorts of scams and other negative trends to be at the forefront of the news cycles.
In No-Code, you've got a similar model, specifically when you think about sites like Airtable and Notion, because at their heart, they are databases. So you can keep your own data and use it between all sorts of apps. Or you can build your own apps on top of it. That's a ton of power. You can serve very small niches of users with minimal effort and create something quite valuable.
For AI, there are a few different pieces that come into play. First, data is the fuel that powers AI. Better data = better AI. But now, with Large Language Models (LLMs) like GPT-3, there's been an interesting change. You can get incredible output with minimal data input. That changes everything, because now, as an individual, you can have access to the same power as the Google search algorithm, social media distribution algorithms, etc. The playing field no longer favors those companies who have been around the longest because they have the most data. Now, with the right data, you can compete on equal or even favorable ground.
In the future, everyone will maintain control over their own data (in Web3 parlance, this is the "wallet", although it's really just a database) and data models will likely be forced to be interoperable ("tokens"), if not by government pressure, the market pressure to support automation platforms and open data standards will get companies to comply more.
Beyond that, it seems to follow that people will no longer flock to those who spend time designing the best website or figuring out the best SEO tactics to use.
They'll focus on finding people with the best data, and that will be based on their observations of what kind of data is valuable.
So everyone will be searching for the databases that have the best data nobody knows about, because if there's something that Web3 taught us, it can be incredibly lucrative to find things early when they turn out to be valuable. But there's a level of quality that is necessary too, and that's where Web3 missed. It showed people the value of being early, not the value of being right. So we'll flip back the other way to find the best of both worlds.
In addition, with new LLMs coming out and improving, we'll be able to hook up databases, pull out the most important data, and transform it to the best format for us to consume. It will be all dynamic. No longer will we have to sift through a large number of static sites trying to figure out if they've been updated, we'll just get the most accurate and up-to-date data that are available.
And that's when the website dies.