Microincentives and Enshittification
It’s hard to convey just how revolutionary Google Search was when it debuted in 1998. It blew rivals — from AskJeeves and Altavista to Yahoo — out of the water. It was so good, it was almost spooky, surfacing the best of the web with just a few clicks.
Today, Google owns the search market, controlling more than 90 percent of searches. Its worth hovers in the trillion-dollar range, and it employs some 180,000 people in offices all over the world. Almost every online journey we take starts with a Google search.
And here’s the thing: Google Search suuuuucks.
It sucks in so many ways. Search results are cluttered with poorly denoted ads from businesses whose websites aren’t good enough to warrant inclusion at the top of the listings on their own merits. The websites that do float “organically” to the top of the listings are often spammy garbage, filled with algorithm-pleasing nonsense.
Woe betide the internet user looking for a simple omelette recipe — the top-ranked specimens have all been prepended with thousands of words of SEO verbiage about “the first time I ate an egg.”
With the advent of Large Language Models, Google results have gotten even worse, as chatbots churn out nonsense on a superhuman scale. Incredibly, Google’s response to this is its own chatbot, which will summarize the garbage novellas generated by SEO creeps into florid paragraphs laden with “hallucinated” lies presented with the conscienceless of a narcissist.
Search and spam have always been at war. In the Altavista days, “search engine optimization” consisted of ending every page with seven paragraphs of white-on-white keywords (“keyword stuffing”).
Today, the SEO industry uses much more sophisticated techniques, locking horns with Google. Of course: Google’s the first — and often the last — place we go to for answers, so snagging top billing in a Google search results page is, approximately speaking, equivalent to being “true.”
Google is losing. Search for your local restaurant — a verified Google merchant, no less! — and the top result will be a scammer that cloned their website, jacked up their prices by 15 percent, who’ll take your order, cream off that sweet 15, and then pretend to be you and place the order with the restaurant.
Getting rooked for 15 percent on your takeout meal is one thing, but that’s strictly smalltime: the big money is in switching out the phone numbers Google gives for every major US airline, substituting numbers for boiler-rooms where scammers will take your credit card and rip you off for all you’re worth.
How did Google get this enshittified? And more to the point, why do we keep using it?
Let’s start with how hard it is to not use Google. Google spends fifty billion dollars per year on deals to be the default search engine for Apple, Samsung, Firefox and elsewhere. Google spends a whole-ass Twitter, every single year, just to make sure you never accidentally try another search engine.
Small wonder there are so few search alternatives — and small wonder that the most promising ones are suffocated for lack of market oxygen.
Google Search is as big as it could possibly be. The sub-ten-percent of the search market that Google doesn’t own isn’t ever going to voluntarily come into the Google fold. Those brave iconoclasts are intimately familiar with Google Search and have had to override one or more defaults in order to get shut of it. They aren’t customers-in-waiting who just need a little more persuading.
That means that Google Search can’t grow by adding new customers. It can only grow by squeezing its existing customers harder.
For Google Search to increase its profits, it must shift value from web publishers, advertisers and/or users to itself.
The only way for Google Search to grow is to make itself worse.
That is textbook enshittification:
Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.
And yet, Google must grow. Its founders and top executives hold portfolios stuffed full of Google shares, and when those shares fall, those key decision-makers get immediately, personally, vastly poorer. Wall Street chases growth: if Google can’t post growth, the big institutions that hold its shares will sell, and the price will plummet and Google’s most important decision-makers will lose vast fortunes.
This is why Google’s product managers are each charged with finding ways to increase the profitability of their little corner of the googleverse.
That increased profitability can only come from enshittification. Every product manager on Google Search spends their workdays figuring out how to remove a Jenga block.
What’s worse, these princelings compete with one another. Their individual progression through the upper echelons of Google’s aristocracy depends as much on others failing as it does on their success. The org chart only has so many VP, SVP and EVP boxes on it, and each layer is much smaller than the previous one. If you’re a VP, every one of your colleagues who makes it to SVP takes a spot that you can no longer get.
Those spots are wildly lucrative. Each tier of the hierarchy is worth an order of magnitude more than the tier beneath it. The stakes are so high that they are barely comprehensible.
That means that every one of these Jenga-block-pulling execs is playing blind: they don’t — and can’t — coordinate on the ways they’re planning to lower quality in order to improve profits.
The exec who decided to save money by reducing the stringency of phone number checking for business accounts didn’t announce this in a company-wide memo.
When you’re eating your seed-corn, it’s imperative that you do so behind closed doors, and tell no one what you’ve done. Like any sleight-of-hand artist, you want the audience to see the outcome of the trick (the cost savings), not how it’s done (exposing every searcher in the world to fraud risk to save a buck).
This backstabbing, Machiavelli-as-a-service corporate environment is what the trustbuster Louis Brandeis called “the curse of bigness.”
Google commands billions in reserves that it can use to buy its way to dominance and out of competition, but the very scale that produced those billions ensures that the search we all rely upon gets steadily worse, exposing us to grave risks as it spirals into enshittification.
Google can’t even grow its way out of this trap by doing new things. Any exec who successfully commands a new line of business has the potential to realize gains that dwarf those of even the most exalted EVP or even president.
That’s partly why Google has to buy other companies to get stuff done. Internally, every powerful person at Google is committed to ensuring that their rival-peers don’t stake out fresh territory as their own. The one thing every top exec can agree on is that the one guy who’s trying to expand the company into an adjacent line of business must not succeed.
This is why every major Google push into a new line — social media, AI — requires a heroic push from the very top management, with the founders parachuting in to announce that they will lead the charge. To do anything less is to fail before you even start (and even then, success is far from guaranteed).
The curse of bigness is by no means limited to Google. The other tech giants have each attained gigantic market shares in their respective territories. Even where there is a duopoly — say, the Google/Apple mobile duopoly, or the Google/Meta ad duopoly — growth is more likely to come through enshittification than competition.
Google and Meta don’t want to compete on their respective share of the ad-market, because each one is strong enough to seriously challenge the other. Instead, they illegally colluded to rig the ad market in order to steal from advertisers and publishers, who are soft targets.
Likewise Google/Apple’s mobile duopoly is more cozy than competitive. Google pays Apple $15–20 billion, every single year, to be the default search in Safari and iOS. If Google and Apple were competing over mobile, you’d expect that one of them would drop the sky-high 30 percent rake they charge on in-app payments, but that would mess up their mutual good thing. Instead, these “competitors” charge exactly the same price for a service with minimal operating costs.
But it’s not just tech that faces the curse of bigness: your bank, your insurer, your beer company, the companies that make your eyeglasses and your athletic shoes — they’ve all run out of lands to conquer, but instead of weeping, they’re taking it out on you, with worse products that cost more.
Enshittification follows monopoly as sure as night follows day.
Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is Chokepoint Capitalism (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power. His latest novel for adults is Red Team Blues. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include The Internet Con: How To Seize the Means of Computation, a detailed policy plan for dismantling Big Tech (Verso, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).