Is this how LinkedIn dies: Not with a bang, but with a Google blog post?
This week, when Google announced it was adding some new features to its job search engine, it seemed like just another tech company update: a few new capabilities listed off in a blog post. But then again, so many updates to products from tech giants start that way — and before you know it, they've swallowed up entire industries.
Google's job search threatens to be yet another example. While looking for work was once the domain of sites like Monster, Indeed, and later, LinkedIn, the mere fact that the world's dominant search engine can now more effectively help you find work already puts Google in a position to dominate. After all, when you want to search for something online, where's the first place you go? Better job hunt tools give users one more reason to simply stay on Google.
It is a question of scale. There are literally billions of people already using not just Google, but also Facebook, Microsoft's Windows, Apple's hardware, and Amazon's many products. That group of companies — helpfully dubbed the Fearsome Five by The New York Times' Farhad Manjoo — command an enormous amount of power, and by virtue of their size, can upend entire businesses by making tiny shifts. That scale means they are becoming increasingly hard to disrupt — and that for anyone looking to, it's best not to approach the Fearsome Five head-on.
The relatively minor changes in job search are one example, but they are important nonetheless. Google now pulls in information from employment companies like Glassdoor that publish reviews of workplaces, lets users set distance parameters, and show estimated salary ranges. Google's capacity to aggregate other companies' information, and use their scale and technology to collect data on salaries and more, allows them to leapfrog competitors.
Yet, this kind of behavior can have broader consequences. There is already a growing sense that regulatory bodies failed in letting Facebook acquire both Instagram and WhatsApp. The company is of course completely dominant in its position as a social network and consequently a distributor of media. With Instagram it now also owns photo sharing, and WhatsApp's enormous size makes it one of the world's default messaging platforms.
To witness the effects of this, one need only look at Snapchat. The popular app once promised to become the next Facebook — until Instagram started copying its features, adding in a story function and filters, too. Now Snapchat's growth has stalled while Instagram Stories already has a mind-boggling 300 million users, more than Snapchat's entire userbase. The promising app that was arguably an innovative mix of texting and TV now threatens to slide into irrelevance because of the overpowering scale of its competitor.
Companies thus looking for dislodge the Fearsome Five face a daunting task. Apple has well over a billion active devices in the wild. Google has embedded its Android operating system in over two billion devices. Even Microsoft has a billion and a half people using Windows. These numbers aren't just big — they represent sizeable percentages of the world's population, and thus the addressable market. It is historically unprecedented to see such scale, too. Even global giants like General Motors see sales of tens of millions units, not billions. And few companies have ever been used by so many people in the same way as Google or Facebook, with their products beginning to touch nearly a quarter of the entire human population.
The situation is thus a complicated one, and the obvious question raised for governments and watchdogs is that of regulation — of whether such scale demands intervention. It is, however, more complicated than it appears. Normally, when companies can so utterly dominate markets, anti-monopoly action is warranted. But given how quickly tech is still changing, it can be hard to determine if this is the right approach. Just a short time ago it seemed like Microsoft's Windows was a monopoly; now it is struggling to stay relevant. Broad regulatory action like splitting up companies, or forcing them to divorce products from one another, may be premature, particularly given the lack of historical precedent.
At the same time, these companies have chased scale with zeal and now are either unwilling or unable to always deal with the effects of their own size. Facebook's less than ideal responses to the issues of fake news and election interference by foreign governments have hardly been inspiring given the amount of sway these companies hold. Indeed, it's not just competition that is at stake here, but even aspects of governance and democracy. Perhaps the risk entailed with regulation may be worth it.
But for those looking to disrupt these companies through more capitalist means — that is, through competition — it seems the key is to approach these companies obliquely. Rather than competing directly, one should instead reframe the terms of the conversation. For example, Slack's workplace collaboration tool didn't tackle either chat or email or co-working separately — features the big five could have easily challenged — but instead put them all together into a new hybrid application. Now it threatens to become a platform unto itself, a kind of homebase for how companies organize themselves and work.
Whether or not governments will step in to challenge these companies' dominance is dependent upon a number of factors, and will likely differ around the world. For competitors, however, their challenge is the immensely difficult problem of finding new ways of doing things that cannot easily be co-opted by tech's behemoths. Unfortunately, that job is going to require much more than a mere Google search.