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14 “Is Google Evil?” Tipping Points Since 2001
Earlier I wrote
how Google seems to have had a bad week, with some recent negative publicity
making it seem like the tipping point of Google becoming the big bad company
they don’t want to be happening — at least perhaps in the eyes of many opinion
makers on the web. Clearly I wasn’t
alone thinking this.
But then again, I can’t help but note that I’ve seen people question whether
Google has lost popular goodwill so many times over the years. I thought it
would be useful to actually list a number of these "tipping points" that Google’s
February 2001: Deja Tipping Point
Google’s first serious crisis, in my view, was when it had to alter the Deja
newsgroup service temporarily. Acquired in February 2001, later that month
functionality was greatly reduced. My
from the time covers the "revolt" and upset that Google faced during this time.
Until then, Google pretty much had been viewed as a sweetheart company that
could do no wrong. Despite the outcry, Google continued upward. And the service
did get much better, as promised.
April 2002: Scientology Tipping Point
After Google overstepped and pulled too many pages from an anti-Scientology
web site, an outcry that kicked up concerns about censorship. Pages were
restored, and Google also instituted a policy of publicly listing Digital
Millennium Copyright Act requests its received. My
from the time has more.
August 2002: Google Watch Born Milestone
Not really a tipping point, but a milestone worth noting. Google gained its
first serious anti-Google web site, Daniel Brandt’s
Google Watch. This happened during
the midst of a number of other issues making people wonder if Google was getting
too big and powerful. From the opening of my
The Marcia Brady Of Search Stay Sweet? article at the time, covering these
Anyone who’s ever watched the 70s television show "The Brady Bunch" knows
that eldest daughter Marcia was the star of the family. At least, this was the
view of middle daughter Jan, who complained once that everyone was always
talking about "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!"
Jan’s words have echoing through my head for the past few months, because
in matters of search, I’ve been hearing a crescendo of "Google, Google,
In the "Search Engine Bunch," Google is Marcia Brady, the family member who
seemingly gets more attention than the others. But while the Jans of the bunch
might be envious of Google’s popularity, there are also serious downsides to
being at the top.
In particular, Google’s biggest challenge may be that so many people now
see it as the only search engine that "matters," a marketplace dominance in
search that seems akin to that which Microsoft has with operating systems,
office software and web browsers.
Microsoft’s supremacy as a company has caused it to be widely loathed. Does
search dominance by Google mean that the company is destined to face general
hatred, as well? Such a fate is not preordained, as we shall see. But first,
let’s review just a few examples of how people have viewed Google as all
December 2002: Listing Issues Make The New York Times Milestone
Another milestone moment. I’d warned that listing issues might be a potential
downfall for Google earlier this year. So had others in the SEO space. By the
end of 2002, we have a first major mainstream media look at this,
Sites Become Dependent on Google on Dec. 9, 2002. This end quote from the
article sound familiar?
The free ride may not last, however. Ms. Johnson of Forrester says larger
companies have been discovering the power of search engines and site
optimization. As was the case on eBay when big retailers moved in, search
listings are becoming less democratic. "It’s going to be more and more
difficult for small sellers to get noticed," she said. "The free listings
lunch may be ending soon."
You hear small sites say the same things today, which indicates the free ride
did NOT go away over all those years despite the fears. And the smart money, I’d
say, is that it’s still not going to be going away for years to come.
January 2003: Wired’s Google Vs. Evil Article Milestone
Another milestone event. This was the first major look
at Google’s "Don’t Be Evil" philosophy, with the company somewhat arrogantly
suggesting with that philosophy that other companies are evil. It covers many of
the things I discussed in that "Marcia Brady of search" article a half-year
before, but the questions and concerns about how Google might develop had only
grown. The concluding paragraph:
It’s inevitable that a company of Google’s size and influence will have to
compromise on purity. There’s a chance that, in five years, Google will end up
looking like a slightly cleaner version of what Yahoo! has become. There’s
also a chance that the site will be able to make a convincing case to
investors that long-term user satisfaction trumps short-term profit. The
leadership of the Internet is Sergey Brin’s to lose. For now, at least, in
Google we trust.
Google-Opoly: The Game No One but
Google Can Play from Slate on Jan. 29, 2003 also gets in on the "is Google
to be feared" action.
February 2003: Google & Big Brother Nomination Tipping Point
2003, Google was nominated
by the Google Watch for Privacy International’s
2003 US Big
Brother Awards. Anyone could be nominated for it. Gandhi could have been
nominated for it. And Google didn’t win it. But the specter Google having an
"immortal" cookie along with other privacy allegations continue to haunt it to
Ruined the Web? from PC Magazine and
The Web, According to Google from BusinessWeek are just two of the negative
articles that resulted in June of that year, and I still see articles like these
For a long
look at the allegations, see my
The Big Brother Nomination article from the time. Despite the allegations,
Google survived the crisis and continued to grow. Indeed, it was the
search engine to stand up to a wide-ranging request for search records from the
US government earlier this year. AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo also gave information
that didn’t violate personally identifiable information but still raised plenty
of red flags warranting opposition.
June 2003: Is There A Google Backlash Milestone
Google backlash from Salon on June 25, 2003 is the first major "is there a
backlash" piece that I can recall. I wrote about this article at the time:
Is Google’s popularity causing a backlash against it? When Salon writer
Farhad Manjoo asked me, my response was immediate. Absolutely. Google is no
longer some tiny, start-up company. It’s a search behemoth, and behemoths of
any type make some people nervous.
As always, there are some serious concerns about Google, as explained in
this article. And as always, many of these are applicable to other search
engines, as well.
This may have been the first major mainstream "backlash" article, but it was
hardly the last
Is a Google Backlash Building? from BusinessWeek in 2004 was another. There
have been many since.
June 2003: Google As God Milestone
Yet another milestone.
Is Google God? was the name of the Thomas Friedman’s column in the New York
Times on June 29, 2003. It was one of the worst things that could happen to
Google. That’s because it put Google up on an impossible pedestal that it could
only slip from. From my review of the article at the time:
Could we now make it a requirement that anyone planning to write about
Google must use at least one other search engine? Perhaps then we’ll see some
perspective. This opinion piece hits a new Google high — Google as God.
If Google is God, then someone should explain to columnist Thomas Friedman
that the search engine universe, like ancient Greece and Rome, has several of
them. Other search engines have the incredible power to show you what people
are searching for worldwide, just like Google
November 2003: Google’s Florida Update Tipping Point
A major ranking algorithm update
many sites out of rankings they’d held for months if not years, right before the
holiday season. Panic ensues on search forums. Google is declared scroogelike.
Despite injuring so many sites, Google survives.
April 2004: Gmail Tipping Point
Soon after Gmail was launched, major waves of concern over ads being targeted
toward email content erupted. Laws were even proposed specifically to stop it.
This was probably the biggest unexpected crisis Google faced outside of Deja
nearly three years before. The company had to spend major amounts of time
convincing people it was not going to violate privacy. Concerns remain, but
Google’s largely overcome this particular tipping point.
April 2004: Jew Watch Tipping Point
The high ranking of an anti-Jewish site for a search on "jew" gets Google
execs such as Sergey Brin out to defend the company plus causes the first ever
disclaimer to be posted on Google’s search results pages, outside of DMCA
removal notices. More from my
at the time.
August 19, 2004: Google Goes Public Tipping Point
Google forced to go public to satisfy US laws plus provide employees some
payoff. It’s a tipping point simply because it led to the inevitable loss of
trusted Googlers who’d been with the company from the start and built its
culture (Google’s marketing chief Cindy McCaffrey was one of the
first to go).
It also leaves the company forced to respond to Wall Street pressures,
already illustrated before it goes public by lowering its initial bid price.
It’s an ongoing crisis where the outcome remains unknown. It’s naive to think
Google post-IPO could stay as the fairly innocent company it once was. But can
it be a major corporation yet still enjoy large popularity and trust.
Despite blogosphere opinion, I’d say that so far with rank-and-file ordinary
users, that’s remained the case. It’s self-evident in the continued usage of
Google. Here’s a recent New York Times article
also finding users still loving Google even when aware of its growth. Will
that opinion stay strong?
February 2005: Click Fraud Tipping Point
Click fraud was going to be the death of Google, with advertisers bringing it
down. Just over
a year later, a $90 million settlement was reached, not even pocket change to
the Big G.
April 2005: Grand Plan Tipping Point
at concerns that Google doesn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason to what
it’s doing, especially after the idea that Yahoo somehow has
product mojo (and see
Google’s Marissa Mayer responds, "We definitely have a grand plan." Despite
that, the concerns don’t go away. Google doesn’t help when Google CEO Eric
Schmidt has this
exchange with Information Week in May 2005:
InformationWeek: …people outside the company like to imagine that
there’s some sort of grand strategic vision that’s driving everything.
Schmidt: [laughs] They’ve obviously not visited Google. We delight
in the lack of such strategy. We’re very careful to say we’re not trying to
build one thing. We’re trying to innovate in all these interesting spaces.
The crisis isn’t resolved. There’s a stream of speculation that Google can’t
have another big homegrown success as with search, such as in this Fortune
article from October 2006. Google also recent
called for a
pause on new products to improve existing ones.
August 2005: Portal Tipping Point
"Google does not do horoscopes, financial advice or chat." That was part of
Google’s original philosophy pitch when it said it wasn’t going to be like all
those portals that neglected search. By August 2005,
it was clear
even to Google that it was doing these things, so the philosophy page was
changed. Despite becoming a portal (it still won’t admit to being a portal, but
stealth portal it
is) — despite putting ads on its home page (like
continues to draw traffic and thus seems to still be surviving the crisis.
September 2006: Copyright Tipping Point 1
The first of several lawsuits over Google scanning in copyright books from
filed. The program continues to draw fire from all types of publishers, and
the controversy shows no sign of abating. Arguably, it’s one of the worst PR
problems that Google faces. Then again, its program where publishers
participating in the book search project has plenty of supporters.
January 2006: Google Censors In China Tipping Point
One of the biggest issues Google has faced continues to dog it. The search
(and see here) its
results in order to try and become a more successful business in China. The spin
that this ensures many people have access to at least lots of information still
doesn’t wash in many quarters, especially when Google is self-admittedly evil
using its own
EvilRank scale. Still, despite the censorship, Google has continued onward
and upward — though ironically, still not so successfully in China.
September 2006: Copyright Tipping Point 2
This deserves separate attention over copyright, since it deals with content
being found through automated fashion, rather than scanning — the core of how
Belgium news publishers win a case to get themselves removed from Google,
something that could have happened without a lawsuit. But the
really to try and force Google to pay them for inclusion. Perhaps it works.
Google strikes an
agreement with some, though not the main party. An agreement with the
Associated Press happened earlier this year.
Google denies these are specifically about protecting the right to crawl,
though the agreements stave off those lawsuits. Whether many more publishers
will force it to come up with agreements remains to be seen.
December 2006: Tips Tipping Point
Small "tips" promoting Google products
create a fairly
large uproar, almost seeming to be a straw that broke the camels back over
growing concerns about Google. Is this the real tipping point where trust is
lost? Is it just the latest in a series of tipping points Google overcomes? Or
is the real tipping point simply that each of these tipping points in totally
reduce the company down into something more ordinary, more typical company like.
I’m sure I’m probably missing some big tipping points here. Not everyone will
agree with what I’ve written, of course. Please share your thoughts and opinions
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.