Fury Over Google’s Self Promotion & Wishing For Perspective

It feels like a bad week to be Google. Honestly, if there’s a tipping point, the freak-out that they’ve become the evil company they said they didn’t want to be seems to have arrived. Goodness knows there’s plenty to be concerned about with Google, as with any large powerful company. The entire Google could become the next evil Microsoft? Yeah, been there, covered that 2002. Maybe the fears are coming true. But then again, you kind of feel sorry for Google in that so many of the accusations, as usual, become unbalanced.

Today the entire Google promoting its own products is hitting new heights. I covered last week on how Google was showing new “tips” pitching its own Blogger product on blog related queries. Firefox cofounder Blake Ross decided earlier this week that this was Google going too far, losing trust. From his post:

The tips are different—and bad for users—because the services they recommend are not the best in their class. If Google wants to make it faster and easier for users to manage events, create a blog or share photos, it could do what it does when you search GOOG: link to the best services. To prevent Google from being the gatekeeper, the company could identify the services algorithmically….

These “tips,” then, can only be a tacit admission of failure: either the company does not believe in its own search technology, or it does not believe its products are good enough to rise to the top organically. I’d guess the latter. And if I were on the Calendar, Blogger or Picasa teams, I wouldn’t be celebrating the news that my employer has lost faith in me.

It just gets worse from there, Google as evil product pusher. For some balance, below is the comment I’ve tried to leave on the post. Perhaps Akismet ate it, as it routinely does to my comments on blog that use that system to catch comment spam [I commented about this here. Can't see it? Ironically, it was probably eaten]. Perhaps Blake has either not the time or energy or desire to release it. Or perhaps the questions about the self-promotion Firefox are considered bad to air. I highly doubt that’s the case, but accusations over motives and trust seem so easy to make these days. My thoughts:

I disagree these are ads. They don’t look like the actual ads on the page. Some users can’t distinguish between ads and search results, but that will change over time. These also don’t look like regular search results. They are something else, specifically promotions.

I think Google has every right to do promotions on its own search results pages. I respect your concerns and your thought that this somehow weakens Google’s trust factor. I think that’s overblown, however. I don’t mistrust CBS if I tune in and the promote some television show during a commercial, while also taking ads from others. Search results are the main way Google communicates with people. If they have their own products and services, I’d rather see them promote them in this unique way than either tampering with the actual ads or the regular results.

Blake, Google has never to my knowledge actually reordered the regular search results to benefit themselves or anyone else. I have seen other major search engines show signs of this, in contrast.

Google has used actual ads space to promote its own products. That raises issues with advertisers who feel that Google isn’t paying as much (Google denies this) or is unfairly taking up a limited space. Getting Google out of the actual ad space actually has some positives to the search ecosystem.

The wording could be better. Rather than tips, changing to Promo: might change everything. Let’s hope they reconsider that.

The biggest flaw in your argument is the idea that the search results somehow indicate the single best thing, the next best thing and so on. That’s too simplistic. Turning Google’s own, outdated language on them is fun, of course. And it can be done against you, as well. Firefox 2 hasn’t made my “online experience even better” compared to when I was a happy Firefox 1.5 user. It’s crashed at least once per day, the little close tab icons have been moved around slowing me down from old habits, and I’m sure I can pull more of your marketing language to make a product I love into some untrustworthy piece of garbage.

The reality is that rankings can change over time — and in addition, the results you see in the US may not be the same as I see doing the exact same search from outside the US. The rankings can also be skewed for a variety of reasons. And people don’t all agree on them. Google may list Picasa lower than Flickr, but that doesn’t mean Picasa users would agree it’s not best in class. You can have several things all be best in class. And those ranking, as I’ve said, will also move.

Really the thing I most disagree with is the idea the products are failures because Google may promote them. I assume Firefox is a big stinking failure, then? I assume this because of this:

http://www.spreadfirefox.com/?q=affiliates/homepage

Really, if Firefox is so great, then word of mouth ought to drive adoption alone. Instead, you’ve partnered with Google to give people I believe up to $1 per download if they get people going with it. Doesn’t that make you lose faith in your own product, that you have to promote it this way with hard cash?

As for the trust factor, two of the most important search engines on the web — Ask.com and Live.com — are not defaults in your search box. Where’s the trust there? Google gets to be default because they pay Firefox money. Shouldn’t Firefox have undertaken a survey of search quality and given us a default that provides the best results? Shouldn’t those other two be there given they provide very good results as well, sometimes better than Google’s results?

By the way, on this:

“Would Google complain if Microsoft informed users about Live Search when they typed Google.com into Internet Explorer’s address bar? Don’t roll your eyes: it would just be another innocuous tip presented to a user en route to a destination. Google owns one of the Web’s command lines, and Microsoft owns the other.”

Actually, there is something like this already. Go search for Google on Live.com and notice you get a new search box coming up. That’s specifically done to try and detour those away from thinking they need to search on Google and who are trying to find it. But few if any say a word about that. Yahoo does the same, just as Yahoo’s long done tips. And I don’t recall either of those companies suggesting they wanted to get away with this because they weren’t built on trust.

I really dislike other companies getting free passes when Google is held up to higher standards. Blake notes that Microsoft and Yahoo both do self-promotion, but he somehow thinks it’s Google that should be put on fire. I disagree. They all should be put up on fire. Singling out Google distorts the underlying argument. If it’s bad, it’s bad for any of them to do it, not because we love Google so much and are disappointed or because Google should be held to a higher standard.

Typically when Google gets burned, it gets burned because I feel people are too lazy to survey the entire competitive landscape and call for general across the board changes. It’s much easier to point at Google and say Google’s the leader, so I’m focusing on them.

Google News is a good example of this. I honestly want to puke if I have to hear another thing about Google News needing to be more transparent when Yahoo News provides the same or less transparency but no one squawks about that. Want an example of this? Check out the mini-debate I had with Dan Gillmor last year on the issue.

Picking up on the Google “tips” stuff, Smugmug dives in to declare “Google’s gone evil.” Really, because of these tips? I’d rather reserve the evil charge for more serious things like, I dunno, censorship in China.

But come on, let’s dive into Smugmug’s accusations more, which pick up off of Blake:

That’s right. Since Google’s own products aren’t good enough to make the top of the rankings themselves, they’re starting to promote them directly, outside of AdWords, with bright logos and top placement (which no-one else can use).

And I suppose in a search on search engines, Google ought to send you to Dogpile immediately, since that’s currently the first search engine that comes up. Right? I mean Google’s not good enough to rank itself, so the product is a failure.

Then again, if I search for image search engines, Google Images comes up first. No doubt that will open them up to accusations that they’ve manipulated the results for their own evil benefit.

But come on, that’s only one bit of Google as evil. That hardly makes this a bad week.

Well, don’t forget we’ve had the crackdown on sex blogs, which opened Google up to the usual accusations that they aren’t transparent enough, don’t do enough for site owners, are just trying to make money off ads and so on.

Without meaning to dismiss those very valid concerns, Google has done more than any search engine this year to provide better transparency on how they operate, provide more tools to help people with listings, provide more assistance in the area that’s far beyond what I’d ever have expected. But despite all that, it apparently hasn’t registered with the let’s hate Google ’cause they’re going evil crowd.

Maybe Google should run a promo tip about all the stuff Google Webmaster Central has done. Nah, that would be evil.

Hey, don’t forget that Google’s that lying sack of a search engine that pushed out all those fake top terms for 2006. That got a buzz going yesterday, along with the sex blog scandal. Why isn’t Google being more transparent over how the list was created.

They should. And so should Yahoo, Microsoft, Ask and AOL, all of which also offered up lists that were just as meaningless and lacking transparency, as I’ve covered. Nah — let’s yell at Google and hold them to the fire. They’re the leader, or there’s just not time to talk to the others [that was my excuse, in part].

I’m not trying to be an apologist for Google. I’ll hold them to the fire as much as anyone, and I’ll cut loose hard if they’ve gone too far. The concerns people raised are often very valid. Moreover, Google leaves itself open to facing higher standards by marketing language it has failed to update sometimes from when it first launched. Consider:

The heart of our software is PageRank™, a system for ranking web pages developed by our founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Stanford University. And while we have dozens of engineers working to improve every aspect of Google on a daily basis, PageRank continues to provide the basis for all of our web search tools.

PageRank Explained

PageRank relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page’s value. In essence, Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote, by page A, for page B. But, Google looks at more than the sheer volume of votes, or links a page receives; it also analyzes the page that casts the vote. Votes cast by pages that are themselves “important” weigh more heavily and help to make other pages “important.”

The concept of counting votes is way old school, given how votes in the form of links are so bought and sold these days. Google (like other search engines) does a lot of vote discounting and weighting as part of the ranking process.

I ignore this type of language because I know better, I understand how outdated it is, plus I know I can find similar language at other search engines. But then again, Google does hold this stuff out there. And Google itself shoved itself up on the “Don’t be evil” platform that inherently suggests everyone else is evil. As a leader, with a big hunking code of conduct or a philosophy that can be slow to catch up with reality, that’s a big long neck willingly stuck out there waiting to be chopped off.

One of my wishes earlier this year was for Google to get more realistic in this department:

Fix the philosophy. I’ve written before about how your philosophy page has a big disconnect with reality. It feels even further disconnected these days. You’re doing 100 different things rather than “one thing really, really well.” As for “you can make money without doing evil,” you know that’s not so when you yourselves created an evil scale to decide just how bad bowing to Chinese censorship would be for you. Give us a realistic philosophy, one that doesn’t give you so far to fall from lofty heights. We’ll like you more for it, rather than the excuses and spin when you can’t do what you say you should do.

I’ll still hope for that. I suppose it’s sad. I liked the noble idea that Google wanted to be a different company, a kinder, gentler company. In some ways they are. But in many other ways, they’re just another big company that’s going to do all the things big companies do to protect their interests. I still hope that Google understands the best way to do this is to protect the interest of their users.

I have nothing but respect for those who worry that Google might be changing for the worst and are, like Blake, speaking out in hopes of influencing that. But I still always wish for greater perspective, for people to hold an industry accountable and for more credit to be paid when particular companies get it right. We talk plenty about the failures. The success deserve more attention, as well.

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://www.blakeross.com/ Blake Ross

    Danny:

    I didn’t delete your post. It was, as you considered, caught in the spam filter, and I have now “released” it. My spam filter currently has 6,000 posts in it so forgive me for not catching it earlier.

    I have already responded to the majority of your points on Blogoscoped, but I will repost my comments here momentarily.

    I’m dismayed that you’re holding my post up as an example of losing balance, because I spent plenty of time thinking about the issue before writing on it, and I’ve spent the last 48 hours debating the finer points of it. I’ve changed many aspects of my position in response to fair criticism, as you can see from the comments on my blog.

    Like you, I am weary of people who judge before thinking, but you do the same thing here many times. You assume that I inherently approve of everything Firefox-related, even though I am not a employee of Mozilla and do not control its business dealings. Where have I ever said, for instance, that I support the Google $1 promotion? Furthermore, you assume that I never credit Google for the things it does right. But I do that all the time. It is *because* I’m so impressed with Google that I was taken aback by this feature. And it’s because I want to see them improve that I wrote about it.

    I am just as annoyed by the knee-jerk “Google is evil” stories of late as you are, but nowhere have I called them “evil”; you are attacking something that is larger than my post. If you’re going to wish for perspective and balance, I’d ask that you practice it yourself, and I will try harder to do the same as well.

    Blake

  • http://www.blakeross.com/ Blake Ross

    As promised, here’s what I posted in response to you on Blogoscoped:

    Danny:

    > And I’m sure the next time Google does a promo for Firefox, Blake will be screaming that maybe it should have been Opera that gets the pitch, because maybe it crashes less, does less memory bloat,

    I find it unfortunate that you seem to believe everyone on the planet is only looking out for #1. I support Opera, link to it in my sidebar, and will gladly begin recommending it to my own parents the day I feel it is better for them.

    I have nothing to do with the Google Firefox promos but I will begin “screaming” about them if that’s what it takes to demonstrate to you that I’m not a hypocrite.

    > Blake might not feel they are best in class, but Google likely disagrees.

    My issue is that Google *does* agree, judging from its own search results.

    > But seriously, how about Blake puts his money where his mouth is. Why isn’t Live Search a default in Firefox? Why isn’t Ask there?

    I would love for them to be there and was just thinking about that last night. I don’t control the Firefox project but I will pitch the idea publicly.

    > It’s kind of sad that I’ve had so much trust and faith in Firefox as an open source community driven browser that makes decisions apparently on who is willing to pay the most to be a default.

    We chose Google long before anyone had ever heard of Firefox because we believed it offered the best service for our users. You can see this in the earliest builds of the product, back when it was still called Phoenix.

    The revenue deal came much later, and as you can imagine, most search engines would offer similar incentives today. So as with every other default in Firefox, this one is decided based on what serves users best.

    > If I were on the Firefox team, I wouldn’t be celebrating that the product is apparently so bad that they had to cut a partnership with Google to pay people up to $1 to generate downloads of it.

    Please stop assuming that “the Firefox team” is a single-celled organism. I don’t assume that everyone at Google shares the same opinion.

    > But you can spin the same accusations about Google back at Firefox, and it doesn’t look so pretty.

    Then we need to fix that, don’t we? Does that somehow detract from my post on Google? I’d be happy to do a follow-up post on the shortcomings of Firefox.

  • http://www.blakeross.com/ Blake Ross

    To address something else you said:

    > Blake notes that Microsoft and Yahoo both do self-promotion, but he somehow thinks it’s Google that should be put on fire. I disagree. They all should be put up on fire.

    I agree completely (although I only said Yahoo; I hadn’t seen the Microsoft “google” example you supplied). You might see my brushing off competitors’ behavior as an unfair attack on Google, but I see it as an affirmation of all that Google has done right. Microsoft and Yahoo have earned so little of my trust and loyalty that their transgressions neither surprise nor matter to me. Google has impressed me for years, and that’s why this matters to me.

    My blog isn’t a chronicle of all that’s wrong in the world, but–like any blog–a chronicle of what matters to me.

    Blake

  • http://searchengineland.com Danny Sullivan

    Thanks much for your comments, Blake. They’re very appreciated. And apologies I didn’t see you’d responded over at Google Blogoscoped.

    I don’t think you inherently approve of the Firefox deals. I’m highlighting those as an example of another well trusted product that in some quarters has lost trust because of promotional deals.

    Poking at Google on its promo stuff just naturally raises why it’s not bad for Firefox to do similar things, especially given your closeness with the product by reputation and development. It does leave you open to accusations of being hypocritical.

    You don’t have to scream about them, but they weren’t addressed at all. As I said, that feels like an big omission. Firefox is one of the few thinks I can think of that comes close to having the trust and support that many give to Google.

    Correct, you didn’t call Google an “evil” product pusher, so I apologize for using that particular word. Product pushing, sure — and clearly concern over a lack of trust that this might bring. That’s a real lack of trust, regardless of the debate. You’ve lost trust with them over this. That’s undeniable, despite what I or others might think. Others agree with you as well, and that has to be respected. It definitely has to be considered by Google.

    I definitely don’t assume that everyone at Firefox is the same. I also totally know that you’ll have people at Google who completely agree with your view about the tips and be glad someone externally is speaking about them. They’ll want that type of ammunition to push for changes. I wasn’t kidding about saying I have respect for these charges being aired in general and by you in particular, at the end of my post. I do. Things like this help keep Google, and any company, honest and on track.

    As for perspective, I do generally try to aim for that and appreciate you do the same. I’m sorry you didn’t feel it was there in this post, but I’ll also try harder on that front.

  • http://www.blakeross.com Blake Ross

    Danny:

    Thanks for the response.

    > It does leave you open to accusations of being hypocritical.

    Agreed, I can’t help that. But research, or even asking me directly, would help defuse those accusations before they’re lobbed at me.

    > As I said, that feels like an big omission.

    Honestly, if I felt like the Firefox promos were analogous, I would have repudiated them as well. As I said elsewhere, I almost wish Google were advertising Firefox on “browser” so people would believe that this isn’t about self-interest. But as I said in my post, I do believe that Google’s front page ads are different, and since the Firefox ads (not the $1 progra) currently fall in that category, I haven’t taken issue with them. Whether or not they’re two different things is certainly debatable, but I don’t think I presented the tips issue unfairly.

    > I’m sorry you didn’t feel it was there in this post, but I’ll also try harder on that front.

    I would appreciate if you could remove or clarify the suggestion that I may have decided not to air your comment, and perhaps insert an update indicating that I’ve responded in the comments.

    Thanks for listening.

    Blake

  • http://searchengineland.com Danny Sullivan

    > But research, or even asking me directly, would help defuse those accusations before they’re lobbed at me.

    I was sort of doing that with my comments on your blogs, asking about this. But I really didn’t mean them as accusations against you personally but as issues that should be addressed about Firefox in general. As for the research, I’ve covered that Google has deals in place that give it presence in Firefox, along with the ways that Firefox gets promoted by Google. Absolutely, I can believe that Firefox wouldn’t do deals if Google wasn’t a good search engine. But there’s still the deals.

    > But as I said in my post, I do believe that Google’s front page ads are different

    Like I said, I personally don’t see the tips on the search results as bad. But that’s my personal opinion. The debate is good in that way. I’ve seen some people say they’d like them at the bottom. Some people think they don’t belong on the results at all. Perhaps the best thing to say is that Google clearly stepped them up and perhaps they should have had a discussion on a sensitive topic like this. But maybe they didn’t really realize it would be that sensitive. They do now :)

    > I would appreciate if you could remove or clarify the suggestion that I may have decided not to air your comment, and perhaps insert an update indicating that I’ve responded in the comments.

    Done!

  • http://www.daviddalka.com/createvalue David Dalka

    Thank goodness that is over! The arrows in the responses looked intense!

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