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San Jose Merc's O'Brien: Google's Grip on Users is as Firm as It is Invisible

San Jose Mercury News columnist Chris O’Brien’s Sunday column is a must-read, as he takes on Google’s claim that “the competition is only one click away.”

O’Brien takes issue with Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt’s testimony before the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee last month, in which Schmidt repeated the “one click away” claim. On “one click away,” O’Brien writes:

The notion is as seductively simple as it is untrue. It resonates because it plays to the fantasy that the Internet is a free market paradise. In reality, Google has amassed a number of advantages that, while they may not be visible, make it improbable that millions of users will suddenly jump ship just because someone builds a better mousetrap.

O’Brien goes on to point out four distinct advantages Google has in the marketplace, which shield it from competition and prevent users from switching to other search engines. These are:

  1. Users deeply ingrained habits.
  2. Google’s exclusive deals with syndication partners, like AOL, MySpace and Mozilla’s Firefox browser, to use Google or give it prominent placement. (On this point, O’Brien quotes attorney Gary Reback, saying: “Some of the deals they are losing money on…They’re doing it to deny competitors scale”). As O’Brien writes, “the notion that two guys in a garage could do the same is, of course, absurd.”
  3. The network effect. (“As more people do more searches on Google, the search results get better.”)
  4. Physical infrastructure. O’Brien writes, “The company has built massive data centers around the world that allow it to deliver instant results. If you could get the users and the momentum, it’s possible that some venture capitalists might pony up the money to build out infrastructure. But it would still take years to actually match Google’s current footprint and meanwhile, you can be sure that Google won’t be standing still.”

He concludes (emphasis added):

But before it comes to that, Google has been trying to cut those arguments short by perpetuating the myth that if it’s a monopoly, it’s a precarious one. That’s nonsense. Whether it’s good for us or not, we should have no illusion that Google’s grip on users is anything less than firm.

Read the full column here.