Search engines aren’t leeches

by Mathew on January 9, 2006

Jakob Nielsen is highly regarded as a web designer and usability expert — although I think his website at could use a few more splashes of colour (that’s a joke, Jakob) — but I think his recent post about search engines being “leeches” of the Internet is way off base. His own summary of the post is as follows: “Search engines extract too much of the Web’s value, leaving too little for the websites that actually create the content. Liberation from search dependency is a strategic imperative for both websites and software vendors.”

No disrespect to Jakob, but this — as the philosopher Jeremy Bentham once said — is “nonsense on stilts.” It’s an issue that has come up before, and no doubt will again: Do search engines and aggregators “steal” content from the websites they index, and by selling ads based on that content, “steal” money from those sites? You might as well argue that the Yellow Pages steals from the companies that are listed in its pages, or that newspapers “steal” money from companies that advertise in their classified listings.

In his discussion of this “theft,” Jakob describes a website that becomes more profitable by increasing its usability, but then watches as all its competitors do likewise; because they are also more profitable, these competitors can then bid more for search-based ads, which drives up the price for the original website, thus robbing it of all those benefits. In reality, all Jakob has described is the normal functioning of a market — in this case, for search-based ads. Search engines drive traffic to a site, which helps increase its profitability. How is that wrong?

Jason Calacanis calls Jakob’s post “the stupidest thing I’ve read in a long time,” and he’s not far wrong. Danny Sullivan of SearchEngineWatch has a more balanced view, but even after giving Jakob points for a couple of aspects of his post, he still can’t agree with central argument. And that’s because it’s nonsensical. Jakob may know a lot about usability, but he doesn’t know a darn thing about economics — Internet or otherwise.

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