Now you see it, now you don’t.

This morning’s Observer column about the power that Google now wields.

Most of the time we don’t think about this because the company provides such a useful service to the average web user. But if you look at it from the point of view of someone who runs an online business then you get a very different perspective. In The Search, an excellent book about Google, John Battell tells a story that illustrates this perfectly.

It concerns a small entrepreneur called Neil Montcrief, who in 2000 founded a small e-commerce business ( selling outsize shoes on the net. For a time, the business was modestly prosperous because of the traffic Google drove to Montcrief’s site. By the middle of 2003 he was shifting $40,000 of big shoes a month.

“And then, one day in November of that year, everything changed. Traffic to his site shrivelled, cash flow plummeted and Montcrief fell late on his loan payments. He began avoiding the UPS man, because he couldn’t pay the bill. His family life deteriorated. And, as far as Montcrief could tell, it was all Google’s fault.”

In a sense, it was. But Google had not targeted him: the vaporisation of his little business turned out to be just collateral damage in the ceaseless war between Google and the armies of people who try to ‘game’ its search results…