Google’s rise to the top of the tech world has been meteoric. Before 1998, there was no Google, yet only 14 years later, the search engine has unseated almost all competitors, from Altavista to Yahoo. And thanks to an innovative platform called AdSense, it redefined ads on the Web, and now rakes in $37 billion annually, and that number grows by billions every year. The company has been so successful, it has taken over entirely new fields of business almost overnight. At the center of this success has always been a promise. Google has promised us that it will “make money without doing evil.” It has consistently contended that it is a new kind of corporation; a good one. A company that will stand above the fray and do the right thing with the mounds of data we pump into it because it’s different than the rest. Google has always wanted to be that geeky friend you can trust to do the right thing.
Lately, things have changed. Google has been getting into trouble with the government and users on a regular basis and seems to be on a streak of actions that seem quite unlike Google. If it were Apple, Facebook, or any other company, we may not care, but Google says its different. It has challenged users, bloggers, and the world to see it as more than every other company. But are its actions living up to its image? Google doodles and the “I’m feeling lucky” button are fun and quirky, but do they represent the company that Google is today? In the sections below, I bring up many recent actions that have put Google at odds with its users, other companies, governments, and many others. Is Google still Google or has it become just another big corporation, out for its own interests?
Perhaps a bit more history would be helpful.
Since it’s founding, Google’s corporate culture seems to have mirrored its ‘good’ mission. Employees were encouraged to always dress casually and 20 percent of their work hours were to be spent on passion projects. It also showered them with high salaries and amenities like workout facilities, lavish free food, free daycare, free laundry service, massages, and perks of all kinds. Google seemed like the coolest place to work.
Letting employees have fun paid off. After Google began swimming in cash, Google Labs was born. New, crazy projects began to flow out of Google on a consistent basis, all of which were free and built to better the Internet or solve a problem. Gmail, Google Maps, Google News, Google Shopper, Google Earth, Google Docs, Google Health, Google Goggles, YouTube (purchased by Google), Chrome, and the Android OS are just a few of these types of projects. There were bombs too, like Google Wave and Google Buzz, but you couldn’t hold it against Google for trying and even a bomb like Wave had some extraordinary ideas behind it. Grander ideas, like self-driving car research and buildings that ran off of renewable energy only enhanced the company’s image.
Google has built user trust by offering almost all its products for free, and earned a strong reputation with developers by embracing open source and open APIs, which let coders use its services in new and interesting ways. Google also created ways for users to import and export information from its services. Meanwhile, Google’s search has continued to improve and stay cutting edge and has only one major competitor today (Bing).
When the company went public in 2004, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin typed up a manifesto pledging that Google was “not a conventional company” and was determined to make “the world a better place.” Reiterating that message, Google pulled out of China in early 2010 due to the censorship policies of the Chinese government.
Cracks in the armor
2010 was a great year for Google financially and it stood its ground on China, but the company got itself into hot water on privacy issues related to Google Buzz and Google Maps. Though each controversy was different, both of them attracted the attention of regulators and lawmakers around the world. As a result of sharing contacts on Buzz, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will monitor Google over user privacy for the next 20 years. Both of these issues seemed like innocent mistakes? Negligent, sure, but not ill intentioned.
The controversial net neutrality framework Google inked with Verizon, which seemed to concede that net neutrality wasn’t possible over wireless (cellular) connections, was another disappointment to many of the company’s supporters. It was as if Google had given up the fight early. It was a sign of things to come.
Larry Page, Google+, and “Your World”
That brings us to about 2011. Google was hugely successful and one of the largest companies in the world. In April 2011, CEO Eric Schmidt stepped down for no announced reason and handed over the reigns to co-founder Larry Page. Oddly, he doesn’t seem to be on the same Page with the statements he made when Google went public in 2004. Though it wasn’t apparent at first, this management shift seems to have changed Google. In an effort to put “more wood behind fewer arrows” Page shut down Google Labs, killed off dozens of projects and services, eliminated many APIs, and told all employees that bonuses for 2011 would be entirely dependent on how successful Google was with its upcoming social network: Google+. But that was only the beginning.
The launch of Google’s new social network — a mashup of Facebook and Twitter — came in June and seems to have triggered a cascade of changes in the company. Page has ordered all of Google’s wayward services to be stitched together and tied to Google+, whether the integration makes complete sense or not. All Google pages now have that notification bar and Google has been constantly revamping its top navigation to try and make all of its services more social. Google+ has begun taking precedence above all else.
Websites and news authors have been pressured to sign up for Google+ accounts so that they are best represented on Google’s search engine. Though Google was built on the idea of unbiased, impartial search, in late 2011, the company has now rolled out “Search + Your World,” an augmented set of search results that include Google+ posts and profiles. While a good idea on paper, the actual results being returned are often less accurate than the typical 10 blue links that Google used to deliver. In my own experience, Google frequently delivers me links to my own Google+ posts and irrelevant content from other G+ users above its own much more relevant and accurate Web links.
The other big problem with “Your World” is that it isn’t; It’s only your Google+ world, assuming you use Google+ at all. While Google used to pull public information from other social networks, it has ended this practice. Prior to the launch of “Search + Your World,” Google ended a major data deal with Twitter, whose executives characterized (in a tweet) the launch of the new service as a “bad day for the Internet” and a “warped” new form of search.
Google representatives have said that these social networks are hiding data from Google, but engineers from Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace have already released a Chrome plugin that allowed Facebook and Twitter results to rejoin Google search. Honestly, the plugin seems to work better than Google’s efforts.
Back in 2004, Larry Page talked about Google being ‘good’ and improving the world, but now, instead of making the world better, he seems to have redefined ‘world’ to mean Google. Google’s mission seems to be to make Google+ and other Google services more popular or bring in more revenue.
Android, Motorola, and provocative patents
Android was built as an open-source alternative to Apple’s iPhone, and the industry desperately needed a good alternative. Google offers it to all manufacturers (or anyone) for free, and anyone can freely modify it, though Google has an approval process for anyone who wants to use Google apps. This is all great. The controversy is the $12.5 billion Google is spending to purchase one huge conflict of interest: Motorola. Google reps and executives have said that the purchase is mostly being made to acquire Motorola’s 17,000 patents and 7,500 pending patents. These patents are needed to ‘supercharge’ and ‘protect’ Android, according to Page himself.
The CEO wrote on the company blog that Google’s “acquisition of Motorola will increase competition by strengthening Google’s patent portfolio, which will enable us to better protect Android from anti-competitive threats from Microsoft, Apple, and other companies.”
Still, Motorola holds about 13 percent of the US smartphone market, according to Comscore, meaning it has about a 25 percent (or so) market share among Android devices. No matter what Motorola, Google, or companies like Samsung or HTC may say, Google owning 25 percent of its own market changes the Android environment completely. It is easy to imagine a world where Motorola phones get first pick or custom versions of Android software. Google claims this will not happen, but history would disagree. Google is already putting its own properties first lately; why would Motorola be any different?
With its Motorola purchase, Google has already gone back on its previous statements about patent suits. The company now says that it has no plans to end or change Motorola’s ongoing patent lawsuits. Remember, it was only last year when Google claimed to be the victim of patent trolls? If patent trolling is wrong, then why is Google now participating in it? It will likely have a good excuse, but keeping Motorola’s lawsuits against Apple and others going after purchase is not in line with the Google of last August. Controversial blogger MG Seigler summarized this situation on PandoDaily with some colorful, but perhaps accurate language.
Google wants to own the store
Operating an app store for applications and games for Android is something that Google had to do in order to compete with the iPhone. But, as of late, Google’s ambition to operate its own content stores on Android — and get a 30 percent cut of content revenue — seems to be expanding on a regular basis. Google recently renamed the Android Market to “Google Play” and now sells apps, games, e-books, movie rentals, movie purchases, music, games, applications, and probably a lot more in the months and years to come. Should Google be opening up its own competitive content stores when there are so many third-party options available? It’s one thing to launch a cloud music storage system like Google Music, but now Google is in the business of selling MP3s. Is this wise?
Owning its own content store not only puts Google in competition with big retailers like Amazon (which is now making its own non-Google Android devices with its own app store), it also ties Google’s revenue to established types of content. While it used to make money indirectly through ads and give its products away for free, Google is now encouraging itself to sell products and make revenue directly. It’s not hard to imagine the Google of old coming up with an idea like Spotify, which offers music for free. Instead, we have Google Music, which sells restricted music in an iTunes-like model.
Google Play also puts Google into competition with many of the apps and services it sells. How long will it be before Google rejects an app because it competes with one of the company’s core services? Apple does it every day. Google seems unable to stay impartial anymore. It seems intent on monetizing every opportunity. This is bad news for an app like Google Listen, which offers podcasts and syndicated radio for free. It hasn’t had a substantial update in a year or two.
Google Maps, for a price
Another fundamental shift for Google is its sudden desire to charge for companies to use its Google Maps service. Our own Geoff Duncan wrote extensively about this issue last week. Major companies like Foursquare and Apple have defected from Google Maps and are now using OpenStreetMaps, an open-source alternative. Can you blame them? Google is now charging services that get more than 25,000 map loads per day a fee of $10 to $40 for each additional 1,000 map loads. This may sound inexpensive, but the charges would add up quickly, especially for a service like Foursquare, which has 15 million users. Plus, why would Foursquare want to pay Google for its map data when Google is actively (though poorly) attempting to take over Foursquare’s market with Google Latitude?
Companies abandoning Google Maps could spell long-term trouble for the service, which is currently the best mapping product around. If more companies move to OpenStreetMaps and other competing products, Google Maps could become the next MapQuest. It might soon be yesterday’s news.
More examples of Google’s anti-social behavior
Google’s new self-serving streak doesn’t end with Google+, Motorola patents, Google Play, or Google Maps. The company’s new-found aggressiveness has crept into many areas of its business. Google built its search business on the idea that the best results should always float to the top, but its expanding empire has challenged that impartiality. Below are a few examples of services and areas where Google has chosen to go it alone and build its own competing service instead of working with other companies.
Google Latitude: With recent additions like check-ins and leaderboards, Google is trying to position Latitude more directly against Foursquare and Facebook Places.
Google Places: For a long time, Google Places included data from Yelp, Citysearch, TripAdvisor, and other services, but in July it dropped support for those services after the companies filed suit because they weren’t getting enough value back from Google, which seemed to be scraping their data solely to enhance its own service. Instead of working to better accommodate these services, Google purchased Zagat and has decided to go it alone.
Google Flights & Hotel Finder: Instead of signing a deal to get flight data or working with a competitor, Google went solo and bought ITA, the company that makes the the software that almost all airlines and ticket sites use to make online reservations. Competitors like Kayak, Bing Travel, and others who need this data have complained, but the deal went through anyway. Google now operates its own flight- and hotel-finding services.
Google Offers: Google’s attempts to buy Groupon were turned down. Instead of finding new ways to aggregate deals from the growing number of coupon and location-based deals sites on the Web, Google opened its own Google Offers, which is currently available in a number of cities across the US.
Google Wallet: I like the idea of Google Wallet and digital wallets, but instead of working with companies like Isis, which has the backing of most major US wireless carriers, Google chose to develop its own competing standard, which may be holding the new service back. It is currently still only available in a few cities and only on Sprint. Verizon, which launched the Galaxy Nexus, refused to operate Google Wallet on its service. Google has also chosen to only integrate its own Google Offers coupon system with Wallet. Competitors have been left out in the cold.
Google Videos: Though it has a video tab that aggregates video from across the Web, recent updates to the Google UI have hidden this feature and put YouTube in its place. Instead of promoting impartial video search, Google is placing a huge preference on its own video site.
Android Honeycomb source code: Google never released the source code for its tablet-only Android 3.0, despite the OS supposedly being an open-source operation. Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) code was released, but it’s plausible that a situation like this could happen again or that Google could reconsider open source all together.
YouTube premium content: Google is funding 100 YouTube channels that will have exclusive content and live shows for its network. This effort is nice, but it also makes YouTube less of an open video market where the best videos (or dumbest) rise to the top. Google will continue to use more YouTube real estate to promote its own video products. Funding your own content is a bit of a conflict of interest for YouTube and Google.
There are undoubtedly many more examples of selfish behavior by Google over the last few years. While most, if not all, of these actions can be justified, it’s not hard to see that there has been a shift in Google’s attitude as of late.
Upcoming changes to search
Earlier today, the Wall Street Journal leaked some of Google’s upcoming plans for its search engine. Soon, it will introduce a new concept called “semantic search,” which will help it deliver actual answers to users instead of links to Web sites. The service will be powered by a new database of more than 200 million ‘entities’ or people, places, and things, that will help Google know exactly what a user wants when typing and better figure out the context of the search query. If you’ve ever typed a simple math problem into Google or asked for the “Population of Michigan,” then you’ve already seen an example of Google giving you a direct answer. While this sounds amazing, and may be, it could also open up a new controversy for Google. The company gets all of its data from sites on the Web. By mining them and delivering direct answers to users, it may save users some clicks and reading, but it could anger Web site owners around the world. After all, what good is Google to a Web site if it doesn’t send traffic back to it?
The WSJ piece also hints that Google will have some exclusive partners for certain types of content. It’s a bit difficult to imagine Google’s search results remaining ‘impartial,’ as it advertises, when it starts delivering answers instead of links. We hope that Google has thought this through and implemented measures to ensure that Web sites don’t get screwed in this new arrangement, but with its track record this year, it’s difficult to say.
Is Google worthy of our love?
About a month ago, I was listening to Gina Trapani on This Week in Google and she referenced a very good blog post from a former Googler named Nelson Minar. He argues that Google isn’t suddenly ‘evil’ but has become something sadder: a traditional company.
“I imagine half of my readers are smugly thinking ‘See, I told you Google was evil all along.’ I don’t think that’s right. In particular I refuse to give in to a cynical view of Google’s “Don’t be evil” motto; that ethos was very real, a sincere and important guiding principle. And if a big company like Google can’t avoid being evil, then what world-changing enterprise can? But I think Google as an organization has moved on; they’re focused now on market position, not making the world better. Which makes me sad. Google is too powerful, too arrogant, too entrenched to be worth our love. Let them defend themselves, I’d rather devote my emotional energy to the upstarts and startups. They deserve our passion.”
A recent blog post by James Whittaker, who just quit Google to work for Microsoft, reiterates this view with much harsher language.
“The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate,” writes Whittaker. “The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus…The days of old Google hiring smart people and empowering them to invent the future was gone. The new Google knew beyond doubt what the future should look like. Employees had gotten it wrong and corporate intervention would set it right again.”
It’s puzzling why Whittaker would go back to Microsoft, which is arguably just as focused and selfish as Google is, especially with its effort to bring out Windows 8, but perhaps that hints at the root of the problem. Microsoft hasn’t pretended to be something it isn’t, and neither have other companies like Facebook or Apple. They’ve claimed to love innovation more than money, but they’ve rarely acted like more than just smart tech companies. Google, on the other hand, has made a business out of convincing the public that it is a ‘good’ company–something different.
Google, the robber baron?
For a time, it seemed like Google was better than other companies. But, it’s fallen so far, so fast that Newsweek is labeling the search giant as one of the “Overlords of Silicon Valley” and a “robber baron.” It’s hard to say what’s going on with the leadership at Google, but it’s sad to see things change in the way that they have. I, and many other journalists and bloggers have long been extra hard on Google, probably to an unfair degree. But that is only because Google has taught us to set our standards high (read its philosophy).
Google claimed to be something greater than a typical money-grubbing corporation. It claimed to have grander intentions. I wonder, where have they gone? Are they caged up or was it a ruse all along?
The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.
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