Will Google Eventually Lose Its Dominance in College Search?

Betting against a powerhouse advertising company like Google on almost anything in the digital world might seem like betting against Russell Westbrook in one-on-one against a middle schooler of your choice. Google has the talent, track record, global respect, and long list of wins that make it the obvious choice in almost any head-to-head battle in the marketplace, at least one that is within Google’s wheelhouse. It is this last statement that settles my stomach as I take a risk and make the call about Google’s role in college search.

Right now, it is arguable that Google (and Youtube) is the leading venue through which most people connect to and explore higher education options. They get on their device of choice and start searching by school name, modality, degree type, major, and related terms. They go to Google and compose questions not unlike what you might imagine people discussing with an informed relative or high school counselor in the past.

I’m in the middle of writing a series of articles about the role of big data and AI in the future of higher education (This is not one of those articles. It is related, but must ultimately be described as mild procrastination.). These articles are meant to reflect what has been years of formal and informal research on this subject. As I explained in the first article in that series, I put higher education data into five major categories, with the first related to learner-college search and connections. In my second article, I will describe an important metaphor shift that is occurring with learner-college search and connections. Without giving that away quite yet, I will say that Google’s current approach is unlikely to hold up to what is coming.

Google remains first an advertising company, and higher education institutions are not an insignificant part of the advertising dollars paid to Google. This puts Google in an interesting position. The company has a stake in maintaining the status quo when it comes to how people use Google to search for colleges. They can tweak the system, but if they break it, that hurts financially.

“Disrupt yourself before others do.” That might be a favorite quote turned cliche in Silicon Valley and the startup world, but in the real world, that is not easy to do. In fact, it is incredibly rare, even from some of the most innovative organizations led by executives who know and agree with the wisdom in such a statement.

That is what came to mind for me when I read the recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, “Google Wants to Play a Bigger Role in Your College Search. Here’s What You Need to Know.” Essentially, the article explains how Google intends to include data from the College Scorecard (a flawed representation of data that I wrote about several years ago) and the Integrated Post-Secondary Education System Data System. In other words, Google is adding some value and insight from these data sets, but it is ultimately a safe move, and not one that forces too much of an immediate change in Google’s business strategies associated with higher education advertising.

To illustrate why I contend that Google will ultimately lose this “market” unless they take a more aggressive “disrupt yourself” approach, I will pose five questions.

  • If you want to find a date using a digital tool, what would you use or where would you go?
  • If you want to search for reviews and/or buy a book online, where would you go?
  • If you want to search for a new job in your field, where do you search online?
  • If you want to find reviews of movies to watch, where do you search online?
  • If you want to find and purchase a used product online, where do you search?

Google makes money that comes from all five of the areas represented in the questions above, but each of these questions also point us to what some refer to as platforms. More generally, answers to each of these questions draw our attention to instances where a significant percentage of people do not persistently turn to Google for answers. They might start by using Google to investigate various dating sites, but people probably end up going with one or a few of them. From that stage on, they are on the dating site, and not Google, at least not when it comes to finding a date. The same can be said for many people when it comes to buying a book (or other products), finding jobs, getting movie reviews, and posting or searching posts of used products. Google still makes some money as people compete to be the platform of choice, but not necessarily as much as if Google were more central to people’s ongoing search.

College search will go the way of dating sites and job boards, only it will be even more nuanced in its sorting and recommendations. Increasingly sophisticated algorithms blended with robust and vetted qualitative reviews and social connections are well on their way to college search. Options like this abound, but they largely represent first generation prototypes. Wait for the generation to see some disruption. Google might have a few years, maybe even 5-10, but change is coming, and it appears that a central business model that revolves around advertising puts Google at a competitive disadvantage, at least if Google wants to even get in the range of claiming to offer search services that improve the quality of one’s choice about college. So, for now it seems that the decision is to play it safe with data sets that create new winners and losers in the higher education game. In the end, however, it is seeming to me like Google might just end up being one in the losing category.