Everyone Fears Google (Again) & Will The Last Googler To Leave Turn The Lights Out?

Back at the beginning of this year, my 14 "Is Google Evil?" Tipping Points Since 2001 covered the history of how Google has been deemed to be too Big Brotherish or too dominant over the years. Another wave of Google hatred and fear is washing across the great sea of Blog. Here’s a look at what’s afloat:

FeedBurner Sparks Things Up

TechCrunch: Google Is Buying FeedBurner covers TechCrunch getting confirmation that Google is to buy FeedBurner. That seems to have sparked off the latest wave of "too much, too much!" Just skim some of the headlines of related discussion on the still-rumored sale on Techmeme here. Should publishers be "skittish," writes BusinessWeek. Would Google please leave other blog advertising systems alone, begs Amit Agalwal.

Geek News Central doesn’t hold back. Google is Buying FeedBurner this is pure Evil!, it writes:

Imagine now, that you will be tracked across the 100’s of thousands of sites using FeedBurner and they will know if your political orientation is Left, Right they will know what your sexual orientation is, they will be able to tell if you like adult sites the list goes on and on.

Google’s Feedburner Grab Would Impact Personalized Search, Analytics from MediaPost picks up the same thought:

Should Google decide to combine knowledge of a user’s subscribed feeds with its wealth of corresponding behavioral data, the company will be able to further target both search and advertising capabilities.

On the one hand, I totally understand the concern that this is another way for Google to close the loop (as my Google: Master Of Closing The Loop? post from last month gets into more). But on the other hand, c’mon. Google has this data already.

Back in February, FeedBurner posted about what services generate the most feed views. Google was second in terms of clicks and first in terms of views. Get FeedBurner to know what feeds people? Google’s got a pretty good idea already.

Wait — what about tracking you across sites! As if tapping into AdSense and Google Analytics data wouldn’t be enough, go back and read my Google Search History Expands, Becomes Web History post. Forget FeedBurner. Heck, forget the DoubleClick purchase. The change Google made already, on its own, is pushing it right along to further tracking of people. As I wrote from that:

With today’s announcement, part of me wants to ring the alarm bell and shout "Uninstall your toolbar! Delete your Google account!" Because let’s face it. Google’s getting big, huge, giant. It’s no longer a joke that the once small, lovable company wants to conquer the world. The Google monster company really is gobbling it up, with no barriers seemingly left. The "we’re a tech company" charade is over from the very top, with CEO Eric Schmidt finally calling Google recently in a Wired interview "an advertising company"….

I remember when Google was a search engine, with a philosophy that said, "Google does search." Now it puts ads on TV, in radio, in print – serves as a payment platform, provides web analytics, pitches software "packs" to us and more. Does it really need to have our web surfing histories as well? When’s enough enough?

Personalization Stokes The Fire

Google’s goal: to organise your daily life came out from the Financial Times this week, with quotes from Eric Schmidt on how Google wants to know all it can about people:

Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, said gathering more personal data was a key way for Google to expand and the company believes that is the logical extension of its stated mission to organise the world’s information.

Asked how Google might look in five years’ time, Mr Schmidt said: “We are very early in the total information we have within Google. The algorithms will get better and we will get better at personalisation.

“The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask the question such as ‘What shall I do tomorrow?’ and ‘What job shall I take?’ ”

The race to accumulate the most comprehensive database of individual information has become the new battleground for search engines as it will allow the industry to offer far more personalised advertisements. These are the holy grail for the search industry, as such advertising would command higher rates.

Know everything about us? Know everything about us! It shouldn’t be that shocking given that back in January, Google stressed how big a deal personalized data would be during an investors call. Google Ramps Up Personalized Search covers how right after that, personalized search expanded and then in May, we got the expanded iGoogle personalized home page as part of an entire day of announcements at Google about personalization (see iGoogle, Personalized Search And You for more on that).

Still, the FT article further woke people up to how much Google wants to know about us. Techmeme had another round of scary headlines, including Google: The New Big Brother from Windows Now and Google is failing the Microsoft litmus test from long-time Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley, who wrote:

If you want to evaluate the “evil” quotient of any company’s strategy/behavior, consider how you’d feel about it if it were Microsoft in the driver seat.

She then notes issues like Google’s investment in the start-up company of Sergey Brin’s new wife, barring vendors from customer seminars and employees wearing t-shirts of its vendors. Frankly, these are pretty weak. Far better would be the oft-cited concern that Google might drive competitors out of business but simply announcing it might be interested in a space. Googleware, like Microsoft vaporware, can chill a space..

But I totally understand the Microsoft comparison. Yeah, I’m going to quote myself again — but c’mon, I was writing about that idea five years ago, back in 2002, when "Google is too big. Google is too scary" stuff was happening then:

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.

Hypocrisy

To explain the next blow to hit Google this week, I have to quote from its corporate philosophy, the "Ten things Google has found to be true:"

  • Focus on the user and all else will follow.
     
  • You can make money without doing evil.

Google & Dell’s Revenue-Generating URL Error Pages Drawing Fire from me earlier this week highlights how this isn’t so — how Google has no problem partnering with a major company to deliver a less-than-good user experience which many would consider making money by being evil. Sure, Dell’s doing this — but Google’s not preventing it. Not only that, Google cut a deal to that is causing this to happen at the same time it complained about consumer choice in terms of Internet Explorer.

My article came off Google turns the page… in a bad way from David Ulevitch’s look at how Dell was handling bad URLs. Sure, OpenDNS has an interest in highlighting what’s happening, but it didn’t make what Google’s cooperating with any better. The stories sparked off yet more blog discussion, as you’ll find on Techmeme, and pushed Robert Scoble to do his DOG (Distrust/Disdain of Google) moves in roundup of Google fear from this week — which kicked off yet more discussion (echo, echo, echo….).

Privacy

Sure, the blogosphere can be an echo chamber, but new sounds kept entering the chamber in terms of Google.

European Union Questions Google’s Data Retention Policy covers the latest, how Google finally got that letter from the EU questioning whether it holds data too long, which I said would be coming back in April. Perspective-time. Back then, I wrote:

Indeed, just today we had news that the European Union is likely to send Google a letter that it might be violating data retention laws. I can virtually guarantee you that whatever Google gets dinged on, Yahoo and Microsoft are probably doing the same. But no one focuses on them in terms of search privacy.

Guess what? No news that Yahoo or Microsoft received similar letters despite the concerns almost being equally applicable to them. I also have to enjoy the fact that to my understanding, other EU regulations may compel Google to keep the information for so long. See blogosphere discussion via Techmeme here, here, here and here.

Now remember that FT article above? It DID mention Yahoo, saying:

Yahoo unveiled a new search technology this year – which monitors what internet users do on its portal, and use that information to build a profile of their interests. The profiles are then used to display ads to the people most likely to be interested in them. The technology will be incorporated into Yahoo’s advertising revamped advertising system dubbed Project Panama.

Yahoo’s actually long monitored people like this (such as I wrote about back in 2003). Maybe it has upgraded that monitoring technology. If so, that’s news to me. But then again, it might be some confusion, similar to what we’ll see next. [NOTE: Yahoo tells me the FT was indeed confused here, stating “Panama is definitely not ‘a search technology that monitors user behavior’ “

From one British paper (the FT) to another, The Independent raised the Google fear stakes with that front page Google is watching you story shown at the top of this page. It wrapped up a number of Google moves, such as the push for more personalization, into a scary sounding article complete with the headline above. There are some real concerns raised, though some credibility was lost when Yahoo’s Panama ad system is described as something that "monitors internet visitors to its site to build a profile of their interests." As I explained — Panama doesn’t do this.

I also like the part saying, "The Independent has now learnt that the body representing Europe’s data protection watchdogs has written to Google requesting more information about its information retention policy." Just learned? As I also explained above, this was known to be coming back in April. But adding "just learned" gives the entire article that extra bit of ominous spice that it needs, I suppose. It does nothing to make you think this was a carefully researched, balanced examination of the issues.

Perspective

I’ve provided some balance above, and yet I’ve grown more worried myself. There’s no doubt that Google has continued to assemble a closed loop system of the type the old trusts of the late 1800s might have admired. Consider that:

  1. You search at Google, click on a search result or ad and…
  2. End up at a site where it might run Google Analytics (or Google AdSense), tracking your visit and…
  3. Make a purchase using Google Checkout, which records what you buy

Old Google had only step one. New Google closes the loop more, and this is only online. Google wants to be more than that. I’ll go back to what I said in my Google: Master Of Closing The Loop? article from earlier:

Is it far-fetched to think Google itself could be setting itself up for an anti-trust action? If the web is now the operating system, and Google is seen by many controlling the web, perhaps it will be forced to divest itself of certain operations because of them effectively giving it a trust or monopoly.

It sounds like something out of Ask’s current "information revolution" ad campaign. It’s the kind of statement that usually gets me dissecting claims and providing balance and perspective, as I did in my 14 "Is Google Evil?" Tipping Points Since 2001 article from earlier this year. But stranger things have happened. In addition, what I’ve learned over the years is there’s rarely thoughtful perspective, when it comes to Google. The company is either seen as a giant success, lovable with fun snakes occasionally getting lose, or it is seen as a giant threat that no one can stop. And some of those threatened have powerful friends themselves.

Despite efforts to close the loop, Google is by no means guaranteed to succeed. In particular, the continued growth by the company of taking so much on might ultimately make it master of nothing — too much data drowning out either the real important signals or just more focused attention to particular products.

Stopping Google

I just got off the phone with a reporter doing a story about all these issues. What might stop Google? Hard to say. A privacy action, maybe — an especially if any politician had their own data exposed. More likely, big powerful interests that think Google controls too much of the ad marketer will use their money to influence and get regulation — that is, if Microsoft’s hasn’t shot its attempt to do that in the Google-DoubleClick deal in the foot by going after aQuantive.

Of course, the issue is that at some point, Google’s going to get hit by what has been slamming Yahoo today. Pre-IPO employees with money will depart to prove they can be successful out from under the shadow of Larry and Sergey. Post-IPO employees will realize they don’t get to cash in and free food isn’t enough. The Final Days of Google from Cringley gets into some of this today. Jeff Barr’s Google Can’t Google? shows how not everyone even wants to work for Google, especially as it has become so bureaucratic (He writes: "They were almost ready to make the ‘can’t refuse’ offer but the process became bogged down when I couldn’t recall my college GPA. Given that I earned my degree in 1985 and have been earning a living by writing code since I was 15 or 16, this didn’t seem all that essential.).

This is ironic given how much Google itself used to talk up having the greatest hiring and employee management system. I don’t have time to pull some past quotes and references now, but I distinctly remember Eric Schmidt a few years ago publicly praising Sergey Brin and Larry Page for having somehow analyze the weaknesses of big companies and come up with a way to prevent Google from stalling.

The reality is that Google is a big giant company that will, like any company, face employee challenges. That’s one reason as I’ve spoken to some reporters recently about Yahoo’s "woes," I’ve argued Yahoo is in better shape than they might think. Yahoo’s dealing with the problems now that Google is going to get slammed with in the future — and perhaps not that far in the future.

Meanwhile, I still firmly remain that the Google "problems" and "fears" could be seen and dealt with in an industry-wide way. As I wrote about personalized search, when I raised that warning flag about Google seeming to want too much:

On the other hand, I’m a big believer in personalized search. I think this type of data can indeed improve the search experience. Moreover, I hate to single out Google just because it is big. We run MyBlogLog here — and all those MyBlogLog members, as I’ve covered, have their surfing habits tracked by Yahoo-owned MyBlogLog. Pick any number of Javascript widgets or tracking things people install. All of them send tracking data back to a mothership about web sites or individuals. Yet little criticism gets raised about this, even when big companies are involved. So why should Google get special attention?

Moreover, I’m actually pretty annoyed at some of the privacy advocacy groups. When Google announced it would anonymize server data last month, I still saw some old school concerns that fairly anonymous cookie data and IP addresses were a privacy concern. C’mon – you want to be concerned about something, you get concerned about the fact Google has — and is growing — real honest-to-goodness personally identifiable profiles of individual searchers. And if you want to get concerned about that, also get concerned that Yahoo and Microsoft have similar profiling — just not as visible to the searcher.

So many companies today offline (banks, credit cards, loyalty cards, credit reporting agencies) hold much more information about me personally than Google does. And Google’s peers are doing much of what Google itself wants to do. Don’t solve the Google problem. Solve the problem, whatever it is, in a comprehensive way. If that means better privacy protection, then give it to me across the board.

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Google: Business Issues | Google: Critics | Google: General

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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.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://myseoproject.blogspot.com/2007/05/yahoo-msn-over-google-whats-in-future.html MYSeoProject

    I am beginning to wonder if maybe we should start looking at Yahoo plus MSN again. Everyone has been so focused on google the past several years but like the hare and rabbit, the hare google may burn out. Yes they have excellent search returns but are they getting too big? Do people trust them as much. Maybe I should take a change and focus my SEO work on Yahoo and MSN. I seem to remember about 9 years ago there was another great search engine that dominated and now it’s just another stop on the Internet – remember AltaVista. Just a thought.

  • Jeff Jockisch

    Excellent post, Danny. Maybe some alarms should be raised – but only because Google apparently knows how to innovate, integrate and utilize the data they collect better than their corporate peers.

    The alarmists out there are appear to value traffic more than actual thought process. OMG, these comapnies want to ‘target’ us. Wake up, Susie. Marketeres have always targeted us and always will.

    Re your summation: “So many companies today offline (banks, credit cards, loyalty cards, credit reporting agencies) hold much more information about me personally than Google does.”

    Not sure I agree with the ‘more’ bit, but these other companies certainly know a lot. I work with credit agencies and banks. I doubt Google knows that I have 13K in debt, am looking to buy a car, missed my last TMobile payment. And they do not have all the demographic info they could ever want on me based upon my social security number and past residences… It’s lucky that they do not sell this data to marketers – oh ya, they do!

  • http://www.luckylester.com Lucky Lester

    Can I get an “Amen Brother”

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