Microincentives and Enshittification (Re: Google)

This is an essay by Cory Doctorow about how Google makes the experience of seeking worse, and why it’s so bad.

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.

The only way for Google Search to grow is to make itself worse.


This is what economists call inelastic demand, where demand barely budges even with increasing prices. Like how a cartel can jack up the prices to increase profits, Google can slap more and more ads to increase their profits at users’ detriment.

In the case of Google, it’s mostly a combination of 2 reasons. First, search engines have now become an essential good. With more and more crucial information being available only online, not using a search engine is simply not an option. Ideally, essential goods are best considered public property to avoid abuse for profit. However, governments are too incompetent to handle search engines (either mismanagement through lack of technical expertise, or malicious intent to control information), so the 2nd best option is implementing regulations to protect consumers, similar to the food industry (adulterating foods is too profitable that competition alone can’t eliminate them, requiring laws that stop manufacturers from adding certain type of ingredients). This makes the support for such laws of paramount importance in preventing Google’s abuse of power.

Second is the lack of alternatives, where the huge time and resource requirement of making and searching a gigantic index deters most search engines from creating one. This is where Mojeek enters, that having its own index, it could be one of the options that people could go to once Google’s dominance breaks. I really hope that before that time comes, Mojeek would have resolved the persistent problem of off-topic results.


I would say it’s interesting use of theory, but demand inelasticity is to do with changes in prices, whereas what you’re talking about is product quality - for my sins this was my subject, my dissertation was specifically about the price elasticity/inelasticity of demand for addictive substances, leveraging also social factors and using long-form data on the UK.

I think if you’re wanting to view this through the lens of Macroeconomics then I think you’ll want to look at other concepts.

This reads more as the kind of comment that someone would make about a natural monopoly (I’m guessing this is sort of what you mean by essential good). I wouldn’t claim that this is what search engines are, as it’s quite obvious to me that multiple navigators can exist; but when it comes to a natural monopoly:

Th[ey] frequently occur in industries where capital costs predominate, creating large economies of scale about the size of the market; examples include public utilities such as water services, electricity, telecommunications, mail, etc.

Here’s where we get to the grain of things,

(switching over to microeconomics for now) monopolies offer to the monopolistic entity the ability to benefit greatly from Economies of Scale - the cost advantages that enterprises obtain due to their scale of operation. These massive economies of scale, which are available to Google, give them the ability to act upon their product in such a way, and the barriers to entry (or percieved barriers to entry as per Colin’s quote at least in the technical/infrastructural sense) give the impression to would-be competitors that this is not a challenge worth taking up.

In a nutshell they can operate so because they’re well backed, and because the general impression is that it’s near-impossible to compete with them- not ours though :smile:


Good point on natural monopoly, and thanks for the insightful response! Google indeed has the advantage through economies of scale.

Though what I actually wanted to point out is the lack of substitutes… or at least used to be. Not using Google before felt similar to a brownout: internal site searches used to be very limited compared to Google, just like a candle is to a lightbulb. In those times, Google is almost a public utility for me.

However, nowadays, that idea is being shaken violently by chatbots. First, they provide answers faster than reading multiple sites (though the accuracy of their responses are really questionable). Second, they’ve become a great source of SEO garbage, poisoning search engines, rendering them less useful. Third, a lot of sites have improved their internal searches that for certain topics, one can live off a curated list of sites, removing the need for search engines.

I still think that regulations and alternatives play significant parts in breaking Google’s monopoly, though after some thinking, it seems to be more fragile than I initially thought. Moreover, Colin seems to be even more right about the cost being only a perceived barrier to entry, as considering the abundance of SEO garbage, the usable index is not as huge as predicted, if only we know how to weed out and skip the poor quality ones.