Monday, July 23, 2012

Doing no evil

"Don't be evil" has always been the semi-official motto of Google—to those who believe in the company, it probably still is.

However, those of us in the tech industry have been highly sceptical (to say the least) for some time, and a couple of incidents have recently been thrown up that I would like to highlight.*

The Children's Furniture Company has recently gone out of business, directly blaming the change in Google's search algorithms for the decision.
As we are a purely web based business, it has always been important to be somewhere near the top of Google for keywords such as 'bunk beds' and 'childrens beds'. Google is where all our customers look and up until May, that's exactly where we were - page 1. To get to that slot is highly prized and competitive and over the past few years we have both advertised on Google and like many companies, used SEO specialists (Search Engine Optimisation as it's called), to help move us up the natural Google listings. A company we used about two years ago put some external links onto our site that Google now considers as webspam and for this it has demoted us to nowhere land (along with 1,000's of other businesses as well).

It seems that we cannot take these links off and the only option open is to completely rebuild the site. Sadly this would take too much time and too much money, whilst not being able to sell furniture at the same time. So as we couldn't see how people would find us; and as we were about to have to invest in a heap more stock, we decided that there was no option but to shut.
This state of affairs was brought to my attention by an SEO professional writing at SearchWatch.
Were the Children’s Furniture Company a good company? Who knows? Certainly not Google. Nor did they care. What is it to Google if they fufilled all their orders, had great customer satisfaction and a satisfactory range of products? The algorithm trumps all and thus customer choice is lessened and another few mouths are on the dole queue.

If you think that the Google of 2012 is a search engine, you’re fooling yourself. It is an advertising channel. It was only yesterday that a screengrab was doing the rounds showing that just 14% of a Google search result is made of organic listings. The rest? Adwords and Google’s own properties—YouTube, News, Shopping and so on. Throw in the increasing personalisation and localisation of results and tie-ins with review sites you’re left with not much space for the little guy. Even the long tail has been ceded to such “quality” sites as eHow and Yahoo! Answers leaving the middle ground for people to fight over the scraps that fall from the top table.

And maybe that’s fair enough. Businesses used to close all the time because they couldn’t afford to advertise during Coronation Street and no-one cried about it very much. That’s an expensive way to get in front of a million noses and get your brand known that was always closed to small business. If Tesco decided they were going to start selling paint and rollers, then your little round-the-corner DIY shop was often toast by the time the 3rd ad for Tesco Paint was on rotation during Hollyoaks.

Google was supposed to be different: a leveller. If you sold paint out of your little shack on the A650, you could go toe to toe with Wickes, B&Q and any retailer in the world so long as you paid your dues, built a good site, offered good service and worked within Google’s guidelines. And for a while, that held up. It’s still the message they peddle.

But I think we can safely call bullshit on that notion now.
Indeed. And that is only to be expected: Google's responsibility is to its shareholders.

But there have been a number of actions by Google, in the last few years, that blow apart their claim to be an ethical company.

As I've said, those of us in the tech industry always thought that this "don't be evil" bullshit was... well, bullshit.

Let us be clear about this: Google is not primarily a technology firm.

Google derives 96% of its revenues from advertising: it is in Google's interests to provide you with free products, which enables it to show you adverts, which persuade you to buy its sponsors' products.

There is nothing wrong with this: and, assuming that I must be shown adverts, I would rather be shown adverts for products that I might be interested in.

However, in pursuit of this goal, Google has made a number of questionable technological and business decisions: decisions that might be understandable, but which most people would find difficult to reconcile with the company's "don't be evil" motto.

But what about Google's reputation as a hotbed of technological invention? Apart from its search—which is becoming more and more polluted by financial interests—what wonderful, successful technologies have they come up with recently?

Yes, GMail and Reader were built and deployed by Google themselves—and they remain very good products, integral to my daily workflow.

And I am writing this—ironic, I know—on a Google product. But Blogger was invented and deployed by others, and bought by Google.

I also use Feedburner—also invented by others and then bought by Google. And the same applies to YouTube.

Picasa? Mostly lost out to Flickr (and now, arguably, Instagram) but was, in any case, invented by Lifescape.

Google+...? Does anyone actually use it? Regularly?

What we did admire was the way that Google churned out good products: or bought them, made them freely available and improved them. But the reaction to Google's recent acquisition of Sparrow—a brilliant Mac OS email client—shows that even this reputation is at an end.

Daring Fireball has only this pithy comment to make:
Congratulations to the Sparrow guys, I guess, but this gives me The Fear for Sparrow’s future.
Sure enough, Sparrow will no longer be updated and developed. This is, as Matt Gemmell points out, a success for the Sparrow developers—its what, I imagine, they were aiming for. It is, nonetheless, an acquisition intended to shut down competition.

More damagingly, online tech magazine Boing Boing goes further—promoting this short but entertaining video.

The point that I am trying to make is that Google has lost whatever respect it had amongst many technologists—either for its technological prowess, or its radical attitude.

UPDATE: I knew I'd forgotten something—whoops! Android, of course, requires a post all of its own. However, there are two things to consider when assessing Google's way here:
  1. Google loses money on Android.
  2. Android looked very different before and after the launch of the iPhone.
  3. Android is a massively fractured platform that, with every iteration, is demonstrating why the Apple "walled garden" ecosystem—and control over carriers—is, in my opinion, better for consumers.
I will address these points in more detail on a later post.

The other product raised is Chrome: this is a browser running on the Open Source WebKit rendering engine, that is sponsored by Google—but also by Apple and a number of other big corporations. It is not a Google-alone product any more than, for instance, Blogger is. Although the V8 Javascript engine is also worth discussing...

* I realise the irony of the fact that I am writing this on a Google product, and using a video hosted on another Google product.**

** I also realise that the irony is lessened slightly by the fact that Google did not invent or deploy these products—it bought them. Yes—all of them: Blogger, Feedburner and YouTube were all acquired, not invented, by Google.


john b said...

Hmm. The device that I'm writing this on is a pretty significant Google innovation. If I were writing this on my computer rather than my phone I would be using Chrome, which would be another.

For my money, the Google attitude to link spammers and the people who hire them is entirely morally defensible. Praiseworthy, even.

Tom Mein said...

I engaged an SEO company and as far as I could see the only thing they did was to set up back links from hundreds of websites , which I assume they built themselves for this purpose.
As the guy says himself he "worked within Google’s guidelines"
Fine, but is he saying that Google cannot change and develop their search engine algorithems to better reflect "real world" websites, just because it knocks his totally false position?

Simon Jester said...

Has anyone else tried using Google Groups? Each time they update the interface, they seem to make it worse...

sconzey said...

Don't attribute to malice what is adequately explained by stupidity.

Swiss Bob said...

Google are arseholes.

Both my Youtube accounts down the pan over four year old stuff, still easily available elsewhere on YT.

Wouldn't buy anything from them if there's another choice.

Giolla Decair said...

Just to be a pedant you're misquoting their motto in the same way most people do, it's actually:
"You can make money without doing evil"
Neither that motto not their philosophy page says that they've any objection to being evil (the philosophy page just talks about adverts in relation to evil)

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