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 nonetheless survived.

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 article 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 article 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 Google: Can The Marcia Brady Of Search Stay Sweet? article at the time, covering these developments:

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, 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 powerful.

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 from Wired 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

In February 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 this day.

Has Google 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 continue on.

For a long look at the allegations, see my Google And The Big Brother Nomination article from the time. Despite the allegations, Google survived the crisis and continued to grow. Indeed, it was the only major 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

Another milestone. The 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 knocks 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 article 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

Newsweek looks 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 gained the product mojo (and see here). 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 here and here) Google 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 libraries is 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 engine censors (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 Google operates.

Belgium news publishers win a case to get themselves removed from Google, something that could have happened without a lawsuit. But the point is 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 below.

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Google: Critics

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://search-engines-web.com/ ★ ★ Search Engines WEB ★ ★

    GOOGLE should NOT be referred to as if it is a monolithic, one dimension organism acting in unison.

    There may be elements about some of the company’s official actions that may be unacceptable to some, but considering some of the charitble actions, such as: Google org, the homepage links to Katrina and Tsunami charities – it illustrates that the company is made up of individuals who bear responsibilities for different aspects of the company policies and directions.

    The few critical examples listed in the topic, should be taken in context of a ten year history of a complex worldwide business.

    Can anyone who decides to judge Google based on the above examples – assure the world that THEY would have been able to do a better job of running a company for the past ten years?

    No one else has been or is able to create an alternative to Google. So, society has to accept the fact that it is extremely easy to criticize imperfections, but often much harder to create something less imperfect than what they are criticizing. ♨

    The bottom line is that society has chosen to use Google – no one forces anyone to type G-O-O-G-L-E into their browser.

    If people are SO-O-O offended by Google’s imperfections, who is stopping them from typing; M-S-N or Y-A-H-O-O, and settling for less relevant SERPs

  • http://blog.seoptimise.com kevgibbo

    Google became the number one search engine by providing the most relevant, unbiased search results, while using the motto “do no evil”. I think they seriously need to think about the impact adding Blogger or calendar tips into the SERPs will have to their reputation and maybe concentrate on growing by following the same methods which have already provided them with so much success.

    As soon as users start to feel that they’re not being provided with the best possible service they’ll turn to another site which can.

  • lemmybrown

    I don’t believe Google are even close to losing favour with the public as they’re so embedded in global consciousness as the search engine of choice.

    Even bad press is good press. As stated, they’ve reached a critical mass where it would be very hard to avoid breaking a few eggs. I know this kind of mentality lets other companies get away with a lot worse but hopefully they will stick to their non evil intentions. It’s good to have sites like Google Watch available so we can keep an eye on what’s going down.

    I’m looking forward to some of these ‘Web 3.0′ start-ups who aim to be the next Google.

  • http://jonhenshaw.com Jon Henshaw

    Don’t forget the recent and abrupt closing of Google Answers and the very rude discontinuation of support for their Search SOAP API (prompting the release of the EvilAPI).

    I for one am starting my new year Google free.

  • http://www.useit.com Jakob Nielsen

    Google is not evil. None of the things you mention are evil, with the exception of scanning books without permission. Certainly it’s not “evil” for a company to promote its own products on its own website. (Though it’s questionable not to label a promotion as an ad when it looks like editorial content.)

    The issue is more that people are starting to discover that Google is in competition with the Internet and has the goal of appropriating a bigger percentage of the value created by all other sites.

    What is the “fair” percentage of the value of other people’s work that should go to search engines? Hard to say, but it seems that more and more companies feel that they would like to keep some for themselves.

    I discussed this issue a year ago in my column Search Engines as Leeches on the Web.

  • lalala

    Anytime a company gets big and approaches a monopoly (and does actions to encourage that), they are called “evil”. The reason why this question is asked more of Google is that they claim to not “be evil”.

    Evil is all about intent. How can we measure intent? All we have are the results of business decisions. I find it hard to believe that all of their business decisions are based on altruism over providing shareholder value.

  • http://mickeleh.blogspot.com Mickeleh

    Why is this tipping point different from all other tipping points? Because this one is a pun. Google is promoting products under the label, “Tip.”

    I take it as clever headline writing, no more.

    Is it evil? C’mon. Google has made a preposterous fetish of hiding most of its products where only persistent geeks would think to look.

    Lately, they’re stepping out. Good for them.

    If the products are great, then making them easier to find will increase the goodness in the world. If the products stink, then making them easier to find will hasten their rejection by the market.

    “You might want to try this…” is a far cry from bundling and tying.

  • http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/ Matt Cutts

    Good chronology. Looking back on these, it’s interesting how many of these tipping points influenced the company going forward. Scientology/DMCA brought us towards more disclosure, Deja brought us towards incorporating outside feedback, etc.

  • karma17

    Is Google evil? Probably not. But is Google becoming the next Microsoft? Probably. No one can deny Google’s success as a search engine and its success period. But Google is becoming a child-king that does what it wants and feels little obligation to respond to you, to me, or to anyone. As Google slowly sells out and corrupts itself, we can and should use other search engines. Only then will Google perhaps realize it is better to respond than ignore. With so much money coming in and so many groveling at their feet, Google has got to feel a little monolithic somewhere–just like Microsoft does.

  • http://netadblog.com snit

    A couple more of Google as Evil tipping points:

    - Jan 2004: AdSense for Domains
    From saying “focus on the user and the rest will follow”, to making money from users’ typos, many times misleading them to a different site.

    - Oct 2005: Web Clips @ gmail

    This is the first time in a google property that the content and the advertisement is not physically separated but displayed in the same space in the page.

  • Flayra

    In some ways Google is the next Microsoft, with one major exception – MS has some of the most widespread programs but a lot of competitors are offering similar and better programs (and OS’s), but so far Google are the best at what they do.

    It’s a bold statement, but I have yet to see anyone show praise for how MSN/Yahoo/etc have outdone Google on search, advertising, analytics, maps or any other of their key areas.

    Ironically, the same people also DEMAND access to API’s for everything Google does, and if that isn’t provided (Google Search SOAP API anyone?), suddenly Google is the bad guy, even if they provide alternatives.

    I think people should give their blessing to google and then use their products, or oppose it and simply not use it at all, instead of this “we are forced to use it, but they are evil”-mentality.

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