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Google is one of the largest tech companies out there; for most of us, not a day goes by without using one Google product or another. Across the Internet, the word “Google” is synonymous with web searching, and if you’re into web advertising – well, let’s just say Google has a very strong hold on that market, as well.
With Google being such a large part of our daily lives, it’s not really surprising that many people have a love/hate relationship with the company – as in, we love to hate the Google.
What is it about Google that we find so disturbing? And is it really fair – is Google as bad as all that? The answers aren’t quite so simple, as you’ll soon discover.
What You Think Google Is – and What It Really Is
There are a lot of misconceptions about Google. One of the most widespread misconceptions concerns exactly what it is that Google does.
When most people think of Google, they think about search. They think, not surprisingly, that Google is in the search engine business. Which, of course it is – although that’s not how the company makes its money.
Google is actually into a lot of different technologies, not just search. Google is also about word processing and spreadsheets, email and instant messaging, mapping and shopping, music and videos, photo editing and sharing, blogging and social networking, even computer operating systems and mobile phones. That might make you think that Google is a diversified technology company, and you’d be partly right; the company does dabble in all those technologies.
But none of these technologies is how Google makes its money. Nope, Google only generates a token amount of revenue directly from search and other technologies; the company generates almost all of its revenues and profits from selling advertising.
That’s right, Google really isn’t a technology company, it’s an advertising company. The technology stuff is all a smokescreen, just various ways to deliver the advertising that it sells. Take away Google AdWords and AdSense, and you have a company not much bigger than your local frozen yogurt joint. With Google, it’s all about the ads.
Once you recognize this, a lot of what Google does makes a little more sense. But there’s still a lot there that one can legitimately take issue with. Let’s look at a few of the most common gripes.
They Keep Changing Things
Some people like to complain that Google changes things too often. Why can’t they just leave well enough alone, goes the complaint. Just when I get used to doing something one way, they go and change it on me.
It’s true, Google does like to tinker with product features, interfaces, and the like. I can certainly vouch for that, having written several books about various Google products and services; on more than one occasion I’ve had to rewrite entire chapters because of last-minute changes from the Googleplex. It’s damned frustrating, I can tell you.
What’s most frustrating is that these changes don’t come on any schedule. It’s almost as if someone comes up with a new idea at the end of one working day and the company implements it overnight. In fact, that is how it sometimes works, as documented in Douglas Edwards’ book, I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59; Edwards tells how, at least in the early days, engineers would think of some change while working late, get permission from their management to implement the change, and surprise the rest of the company when they came in for work the next morning. Not a lot of bureaucracy involved.
The reality is, Google sometimes changes things because they can. That’s the way a lot of web companies work. Unlike traditional hardware and software companies, who work on a set schedule, announcing new upgrades months or years in advance, Google can tweak a web page almost instantly, and often does. Want to add a new search parameter to the search page? Why wait – just do it. Want to add a new charting feature to Google Spreadsheets? No need to wait several months for the next “point” upgrade, just add the feature now.
For consumers, this is at most an annoyance. For businesses, however, some of Google’s changes can significantly affect their bottom line. That’s because one of the things that Google is constantly tweaking is the algorithm that drives it search results. Google wants to deliver the best search results possible, and that means continuously evaluating results and finding ways to get the most appropriate sites to the top of the results pages. The problem comes when one of those changes to Google’s algorithms causes a site’s ranking to plummet; nobody likes that to happen.
So Google’s incessant tinkering with the way it ranks search results causes a lot of websites to do almost constant search engine optimization. (Or should that be search engine reoptimization?) One little change in the formula creates a lot of work for a lot of websites. (And also generates a lot of income for SEO consultants, to be fair.)
Now, I understand people complaining when something they use every day suddenly changes on them. Let’s face it, we’re not so good with change; the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has become a societal motto for many. But every tech company is faced with a damned if they do, damned if they don’t decision when it comes to keeping their products and services fresh and up to date. A company wants and needs to keep up with the competition, but without alienating all of its current customers. Any little change that Google (or Facebook or Microsoft) makes is likely to piss off huge numbers of folks who liked it the old way. That’s the price of admission.
That said, I think Google has actually affected less change over the years than other tech companies. For years – I’m talking years, people, not months – Google refused to change its home page at all. The recent move to the black toolbar is the first major change to the Google search page in close to forever, and when you think about it, it’s not that big a change, not really. Yeah, the company is fiddling around with a lot of little things, but they tend to be pretty good about leaving the big stuff well enough alone.
So on this issue, I think Google gets a bum rap. If you still think that Google changes too much too often, you don’t get around the web much, do you?
They Do Too Many Things – and Don’t Know How to Market Them
I listed at the outset of this article some of the many things that Google does in addition to search. We’re talking mapping (Google Maps and Google Earth), photo sharing and editing, cloud computing, operating systems (two of them – Android and Chrome OS), mobile devices, even self-driving cars. What the hell is that all about – and who can keep track of it all?
From the very beginning, Google has had kind of a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach to product development. In fact, the company until recently required all employees to devote 20% of their time each week on exploratory projects, just to see what might develop. The thinking is to give their engineers time to explore their own personal interests, on the off chance that one of these projects might develop into something viable.
This describes an engineering-oriented company culture, which admittedly has proven beneficial to Google in the past. The two most important technologies in Google’s portfolio – its namesake search engine and the profit engine that is search-based advertising – were both little adventures that paid big rewards. (The development of the ad serving technology was a little skunk works project that turned Google into a money-making machine.) I think the powers that be kept hoping that if they gave their engineers enough slack, one of them would develop another billion-dollar idea.
The problem here is that Google didn’t know how to triage the promising projects from the merely interesting ones. That’s because this engineering focus was not balanced with a marketing focus – that is, Google didn’t give a rat’s ass about what their customers might actually want. If they build it they will come was the company motto, without considering whether anyone actually wanted it or not. The result was a lot of disparate products and services that did not coalesce into a cohesive line of offerings, and that most consumers avoided like the plague.
Now, some customers might have embraced some of these products, if they had only known about them. That’s another side effect of Google’s engineering-only focus; management simply didn’t (and still doesn’t, as near as I can tell) believe in marketing, advertising, and promotion – which is ironic, given that 99.9% of company revenues are derived from selling said advertising. When it came to promoting its own products, however, nobody on the management team wanted to do it. In fact, the company’s founders believed (and perhaps still believe) that marketing is inherently evil, because it forces people to do something that they wouldn’t necessarily do otherwise. As Douglas Edwards, good old employee number 59, related in his book, it must have been lonely being in Google’s marketing department.
So, over the years, Google produced a mind boggling array of technology products and services, and didn’t tell anybody about any of them. Have you ever heard of Google Answers, or Google Base, or Google Buzz, or Google Desktop, or Google Goggles, or Google Lively, or Google Notebook, or Google Sets, or Knol, or Picasa, or SketchUp, or Google TV? Probably not, and that’s the problem. By not believing in or supporting traditional marketing activities, Google produced a plethora of products that weren’t known to their target audiences.
Let’s face it, most tech companies are pretty lousy at marketing, but at least they try. (Wait for a future article for my stories about Microsoft’s marketing missteps.) Google never tried, and ended up with a portfolio of failed products, many of which they’ve recently abandoned.
In this aspect, Google is the anti-Apple. Apple has a strong engineering focus, too, but an even stronger consumer focus. Apple doesn’t release a ton of different products; it releases a handful of products with strong appeal to consumers. And then it does a terrific job of letting people know about (and convincing them that they need) those products. I know of no other company of Google’s approximate size that has wasted so many resources on so many ill-fated products, and it’s all due to listening solely to the engineers and not at all to the marketing department – or the company’s customer base. The knock against Google on this one is legitimate.
They Know Too Much About Us
Any company that collects massive amounts of data about hundreds of millions of customers is bound to be the target of privacy concerns. Google, of course, has reams of data at its virtual fingertips, due to the billions of searches you and I and everyone else in the free world conduct each day. Every search made is one more bit of data to add to the collection.
So yes, Google knows a lot about a lot of users. But just what can or will the company due with that data?
Google says that the data it collects is anonymous and, besides, it’d never do anything untoward with it. Trust us, they say.
We could take Google at its word, but that might be naïve. In fact, the company has already proven less than altruistic when it comes to preserving people’s privacy. Take, for example, the little kerfluffle that arose when the company launched the ill-fated Google Buzz social network; by automatically adding anyone with a Gmail account to each user’s contacts, without asking for any sort of permission to do so. That’s a privacy no-no, to be sure.
And what about all the pictures that Google has of people, places, and things, due to its Google Maps Street View project? Or the fact that, when shooting all those Street View photos, Google also captured the names and identification information of every single WiFi router it drove past? Or the reports that Google has been working with the National Security Agency to investigate a rash of network attacks?
Privacy experts have criticized Google for all these issues and more. One of the biggest criticisms has been how cooperative Google has been in disclosing information in response to various government requests. And it’s not just the U.S. government that’s getting access to Google data; Brazil, India, Germany, and the U.K. have all asked for – and received – confidential data from Google’s database.
Here’s the reality. No matter how well intentioned Google is with the data it collects, just having that data is an invitation to abuse, either by Google or by various government entities. (Or, for that matter, to dedicated hackers, who seem to break into just about anywhere.) We want Google to know enough about us to make our online experience more personal, but not so much as to endanger our privacy.
It’s Becoming Too Much Like Microsoft
It’s fairly common for customers to embrace a company when it’s small and up and coming, and then sour on the company once it becomes big and dominant. We like to root for the underdog and root against the big evil giant.
Well, when Google was young, it was the underdog against the evil giant Yahoo! Now that Google has vanquished pretty much all search competition, Google has, in many people’s eyes, become the very evil giant that it once fought against. And nobody likes an evil giant.
In this respect, Google is becoming a lot like another nemesis, its fellow evil giant Microsoft. And absolutely nobody likes Microsoft.
Microsoft has a reputation (well deserved, some would say) for abusing its power as the market leader in operating systems and computer software. It’s big and it throws its weight around, and that’s evil.
Google, on the other hand, has sworn off evil; it’s unofficial company motto, in fact, is “don’t be evil.” (That was even in the company’s IPO prospectus, so they must mean it.) So one wouldn’t expect Google to throw its considerable weight around like Microsoft does. Or would one?
Look, when you’re an 800 pound gorilla, sometimes you just gotta act like an 800 pound gorilla. Google has its tentacles in virtually aspect of the technology business today, and it doesn’t like to lose. So sometimes Google pushes a little harder than it should, all in an attempt to achieve its goals. And since the company won’t be evil, well, the ends must justify the means, right?
Is Google Evil?
So Google is big and pushy and likes to get its way. That doesn’t necessarily make the company evil, however.
To some degree, Google is just doing what any big company has to do. Google has shareholders to appease, and likes to see its stock price go up instead of down. Any actions to that effect are not necessarily evil, they’re just what large corporations do. As the scorpion said the frog, it’s just its nature.
Rather than thinking of Google as evil, I tend to think of it as extremely self-centered. It may do evil things without even knowing it, and certainly without intending to. But it may still do evil things.
To me, the underlying issue with Google is that its management has an inherent belief that they’re always right, and that everything can be solved by the proper application of technology. (If you can create an algorithm to figure out a problem, you don’t have to rely on inconsistent human decision making.) This is hubristic to an extreme degree, and has led the company to make all manner of ill conceived decisions. If you think you can never make a mistake, you will engage in behavior that invites at least the risk of said mistakes. It’s all caution to the wind, and the company is going to do what the company is going to do; everybody else better get used to that.
This attitude, however, eventually leads to failure. Not all decisions will be perfect, mistakes will be made, and the public will eventually turn against you. Our ongoing love/hate relationship with Google is a sign of that. I don’t think Google means to do ill; in fact, I think Google’s founders and management are refreshingly socially conscious. But unless Google can disengage its historical internal focus and awaken to the changing world around it, we’ll continue to love to hate the company – and for good reason. We want Google to do good, not evil, and continue to be disappointed when the company acts contrary to its stated good intentions.