As Google turns 25, it has evolved to become a $1 trillion company surpassing its search engine capabilities to offer a vast array of services. But 25 years in, its dominance of the search engine market is under threat – not only from direct competitors, but also from new platforms such as TikTok and ChatGPT. Google’s woes are compounded by the current antitrust lawsuit being brought against it by the US Department of Justice, which argues that Google’s dominance over the search engine market is a result of unlawful partnerships that unfairly allowed the company to set its products as the default internet search provider on electronic devices.
The birth and growth of Google
Google was created as a tool to organise information from the internet and make it universally accessible. This vision, conceived by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, came to life when Google was launched in September 1998. Its effective algorithm, coupled with its simplicity of use, led to success, and Google soon overtook its predecessors such as Ask Jeeves and Yahoo! to dominate the search engine market. By 2006, Google was so ingrained in society that it was added as a verb to the Oxford English Dictionary, and it is now widely-adopted terminology for those looking for information online to “Google it”.
Since Google emerged as the frontrunner of search engines, it has continuously evolved to extend its capabilities, developing new technology to increase its market attraction with products including Gmail, Google Chrome, Google Maps, and Google Lens. It has also made several successful acquisitions, including YouTube, Android and DeepMind.
In 2015, Google underwent a large company restructure to enable further growth and the ability to engage in riskier investments while protecting its core brand. This prompted the formation of Alphabet, Google’s parent company.
Google’s role in open-source investigation
Google plays a critical role in open-source investigation (OSINT). The library of publicly-accessible information indexed by Google gives researchers access to vast amounts of data that is vital for online investigations. Google’s search engine facilitates keyword searches which, when combined with the use of Boolean operators, allow researchers to refine their search results by conducting targeted searches. Search refinement is amplified through the use of filters that can determine specific date ranges and isolate particular websites or file types in the returned results.
The evolution of Google’s services has helped to advance OSINT capabilities. When Google Street View launched in 2007 following the creation of Google Maps in 2005, researchers could see 360-degree views of roads around the world for the first time, providing a new way to identify locations and addresses. In 2011, Google’s reverse image search arrived, allowing users to conduct searches using images, rather than text. It returns other instances of the image online, alongside visually similar images, and web pages that include the image. This is useful to investigators for identifying information such as the original source of an image, the location depicted in a photo, or online personas.
New arrivals and the threat to Google
As well as benefiting investigators and researchers, these products have helped Google to maintain its position as the frontrunner in online search. But Google’s dominance is increasingly being threatened by emerging technologies such as TikTok and OpenAI’s ChatGPT.
Younger generations are turning to TikTok to answer their queries, while AI chatbot ChatGPT has positioned itself as a system akin to a personal assistant, capable of returning considered answers to queries in a matter of seconds. Alongside ChatGPT’s ability to make information universally accessible, it boasts a plethora of other capabilities, from writing essays, poems and novels in the style of a specified writer to creating artwork and computer code.
Google has responded by creating Google Bard, which, like ChatGPT, uses AI to return succinct responses to questions. Google is no stranger to AI, having invested in the technology since its early days, and it has previously adopted machine learning for tasks including correcting spelling errors.
The US antitrust lawsuit against Google
But while Google Bard may help Google to maintain its leading position in the online search engine market, ChatGPT and TikTok are not the only threats to its future. An antitrust lawsuit, filed by the United States Department of Justice and several US states in October 2020, is currently at trial.
In the first antitrust trial against a big tech company since the late 1990s, the Department of Justice argues that Google has abused its power to hold a monopoly over online search services, while freezing out its competitors. The trial, which is being heard over 10 weeks, having commenced on 12 September 2023, alleges that Google illegally partnered with companies including phone makers and internet providers to pre-install its products as the default on devices, enabling it to benefit from an unfair advantage and allowing it to maintain a stronghold on the internet search market.
What lies ahead for Google and online search?
As Google commemorates its 25th year, it has evolved to become synonymous with gathering information online. But despite its success and market dominance, its future position in the search engine market faces sizeable challenges. The current antitrust trial could severely impact the stature of Google as we currently know it, paving the way for emerging technologies to carve out their own positions in the online information-sourcing world.
With Google’s two-decade growth arming it with an impressive suite of products and services used daily by millions, its position is likely to remain strong. But while the growth of new ways to search, such as TikTok and ChatGPT, does not predetermine a downfall for Google, there are signs that the search engine market may begin to see a more balanced distribution across different platforms in future.