For years, web designers have relied on free tools from the likes of Google, Facebook and other large companies to enhance the things we build. We have happily used these offerings to analyze site statistics, serve up fonts and integrate social media. Just about any type of high-end functionality these companies have to offer has been readily available to us – usually without any upfront monetary cost.
But things are changing. Google, for one, is now requiring us to add billing information to our accounts if we want to continue to use their Maps API. And the recent revelations of the whole Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal have shaken the very foundation of trust when it comes to securing user data.
Of course, those aren’t the only examples of the changing landscape that one can find. But they do represent a sort of bait-and-switch of the ideals that these companies like to preach. And it leaves a sour taste in the mouth of those of us who have helped to spread this technology in our web projects.
There Was Always a Catch
Whether or not we realized it at the time, many of these “free” services we have added to websites had a cost attached to them. The companies providing the service were after user data that they could turn into profit.
That might not be an inherently bad thing, but it certainly is a wildly-successful business strategy. Instead of, for instance, making Google Analytics a straight-up pay service – Google realized that they could give a basic (but still incredibly valuable) version away to anyone who wanted to use it. This, in turn, would provide them with server farms worth of data that they could index, monetize and, perhaps most importantly, use to shape the web to match their vision.
As we’ve seen, Google in particular is wielding an incredible amount of influence these days when it comes to web technologies. Analytics has become the standard of statistical analysis – but it goes well beyond that one product.
One way or another, they’ve managed to push structured data, Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), and material design to the masses. Their APIs for Maps, Fonts, Translate and AdWords are virtually everywhere. Their 2008 acquisition of DoubleClick has only strengthened their ubiquitous presence on the web.
At this point in time, it might be easier to find a needle in a haystack than it would be to find a website that doesn’t make a call to Google.
So, yes, there has always been more to this bargain than just adding some cool features to your website. That may be fine, but seeing these providers now change the game on us has led to some realizations.
Meet the New Boss
The bargain designers made with big data over the years has worked pretty well for both sides. But when the providers turn around and dictate a whole new set of terms or show some very undesirable behavior, it really says something about how they view the relationship.
The feeling I get is that some of these providers are happy to have the web design community on board, but only on their terms. They’ll take the user data we willingly give them but don’t seem to be concerned with the consequences of changing things up midstream.
The fiasco with the Google Maps API is just one example (and I don’t mean to single this particular company out – but they do seem to define the issue quite well). Imagine the number of websites using this particular API. Then think about the number of products that have been built around the API. Now, think of all the time and treasure it’s going to take to adapt to the provider’s sudden change in policy.
In this case, Google absolutely knows that they have developers between a rock and hard place. Either we rip up our existing setups to use a competitor’s API (and do it within the virtual nanosecond of a window they provided) or simply shut up and do as they say.
But the truth is that any one of these big providers can do exactly the same thing at any time. Facebook, for example, did something similar with its Pages feature years ago. Remember when you could make a post to your business Page and every one of your followers would see it? These days, they want you to pay for the privilege of “boosting” that same content.
The lesson here is that anyone who has the market penetration and influence over the web can make life a living hell for web professionals as well as website owners.
We’re Not Mad…Just Disappointed
There was a time when the online world was just exploding with great innovation. There were companies that seemed to literally change the world overnight – and it was hard not to buy into what they were doing.
Personally, I fell for it hook, line and sinker. The “everything is free” hippie in me thought that this technological wave was going to promote individual freedom and bring a sense of altruism via the web. Maybe it has in some ways.
But the overwhelming feeling of the moment is that it was just another sales pitch – one that worked incredibly well. It compelled us to integrate tools that, in some cases, ended up being used against us to varying degrees.
Yes, we’ve been able to add some amazing functionality and user convenience to our websites. But the cost may have been more than we bargained for.