On Google’s web, the user is #1, Google is #0

partnership with Adobe will make Flash objects search-indexable, but only by Google and Yahoo. By participating in this exclusive program, Google implicitly sanctions an anti-user reality. This runs counter to their motto “Don’t Be Evil,” as well as the spirit of their stance on Net Neutrality. The Net Neutrality issue is typically framed as an indictment of broadband providers, but let’s be real, here: search has become nearly as fundamental to the internet experience as packet exchange. Google’s Net Neutrality page describes it as “the principle that Internet users should be in control of what content they view and what applications they use on the Internet.”

Sure, we’re all “free” to use other engines that can’t index SWF files. And if the federal highway system creates special lanes exclusively reserved for Ford cars, we’re all still “free” to buy Hondas. Granted, Adobe is a private company, not a government, and Google has its competitive edge to think about. But given their company motto and proclaimed stance on user rights, their participation here is hypocritical.

It’s possible that this is only temporary. Adobe probably wants to do whatever it can to make Flash organic to the web, and compete as effectively as possible with Microsoft’s new XML-happy and search-indexable SilverLight. I expect they’ll want to open up their new player to any and all search providers that could use it.

So maybe this is temporary. And maybe Google already knows it. If so, they should tell us! I want to think so, and I still generally like and support Google. But so far, Google seems perfectly happy to milk the exclusivity. A post to Google’s official blog essentially just says “our clever engineers have come up with a way to work with Adobe’s new Flash Player standard”:

Google has been developing a new algorithm for indexing textual content in Flash files of all kinds, from Flash menus, buttons and banners, to self-contained Flash websites. Recently, we’ve improved the performance of this Flash indexing algorithm by integrating Adobe’s Flash Player technology.

They link to Adobe’s press release, which announced:

Adobe is providing optimized Adobe Flash Player technology to Google and Yahoo! to enhance search engine indexing of the Flash file format (SWF) and uncover information that is currently undiscoverable by search engines.

(via Daring Fireball)

John Gruber pointed out: “It’s completely closed and opaque. Adobe is only providing the magic recipe to Google and Yahoo; all other search engines remain locked out.”

There’s another statement later in the press release that almost-but-not-quite suggests indexing will be rolled out to other search engines down the road:

We are initially working with Google and Yahoo! to significantly improve search of this rich content on the Web, and we intend to broaden the availability of this capability to benefit all content publishers, developers and end users.

The word “initially” is all we get. Parsing the rest of the statement carefully, there is, at best, only a non-committal implication that other search engines will be able to take advantage later. Google has the leverage here to tell Adobe that it will only participate if Flash files are ultimately indexable by any entity. If this is intended to be a long term or permanently exclusive arrangement, then Google should speak up, and refuse to participate.

Google’s stance on Net Neutrality is good for users. It’s also very good for Google. If broadband providers become content controllers, they could oust Google search from the user experience. So while Google’s position there is laudable, it is not brave or surprising.

That’s why this issue of Flash indexing is telling. If Google’s financial motives are truly balanced against its purported philosophy, then this situation tests the mettle of their integrity. If their engineers are so clever, then the company shouldn’t fear the ensuing competition following Adobe’s concession to allow other companies access.

Maybe it’s naive to think a multi-billion dollar company is capable of that kind of paradoxical behavior, and maybe Google really isn’t different at all.

If not, and the situation remains true for long (or permanently), then in addition to Google’s search result censorship in Germany and France, cooperation with China’s Great Firewall, and concessions to the demands of the Church of Scientology, we can add this latest development to an emerging practical doctrine at Google, that goes “What’s best for the user is what’s best for the web… but what’s best for Google trumps everything else.”

Thanks for the feedback.

1. I’m not anti-Google, or anti-capitalist, or anything else along those lines. Nor am I arguing that Adobe or Yahoo shouldn’t be asked these questions. I’m pointing out that Google has pulled off the unusual trick of being a multi-billion dollar company that is still perceived by the masses as amazingly pro-consumer / pro-user.

This development is a good reference point example of why this consumer notion is likely flawed. I’m not surprised to learn that people who pay attention to this sort of thing aren’t buying Google’s public stance. But you are not the majority.

2. It’s fair to say that indexable SWF is of limited value, for the moment. Currently, one cannot link “past” the initial state of a Flash object and get straight to the indexed content. But this will change, and with Adobe providing exclusive access to only two search providers, it’s worth raising a red flag here and simply asking “What kind of access? For how long?”

3. This could definitely lead to gross overuse of Flash web design, as SEO firms and web developers start taking a different stance on recommended best practices. This could be destructive (possibly also amusing) if the wrong content (“Loading. Please wait”) gets indexed and summarized.

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