The Growing Portrait Of Google As A Big, Scary, Expanding Everywhere Copy Monster
Twice this year, Google’s been fairly frank and vocal about something competitors have done that it feels is unfair. Twice, I’ve watched the technosphere largely react by beating the company over the head with a “You do whatever you want and copy everyone else” stick. Does that measure up, and more so than for Google than other companies?
The first time was this happened was in the wake of Google’s accusations that Bing was copying its search results. This week’s attacks have come after Google whined that Microsoft, Oracle and Apple were ganging up on it to stop Android through the use of “bogus” patents, which those companies apparently overpaid for, in Google’s esteemed wisdom.
What Are You Whining About Now, Google?
Well, boo-hoo. It’s no wonder many probably nodded in agreement when John Gruber fired back that if the patents were so overpriced, why did Google itself bid $3 billion for them, at one point?
I’m not a patent expert. I can’t tell you what in this portfolio might be applicable fairly to Android or not. I have no idea if they were worth $3 billion just for the security of holding them, and perhaps not enforcing them, as Google may have wanted. Maybe Google was going to go all predatory with them.
The Google Monster
Reading some of these accusations, you come away with the impression that Google should have sat in its little search box and let other companies expand into new areas. Moreover, by not sitting in its designated search corner, the company deserves whatever anyone wants to sling at it.
How Does Google Copy? Let Them Count The Ways…
For example, there’s Brian Hall’s post, where he lists Google’s sins:
- Yelp gets popular? Copy their info, shove Yelp to the bottom of the page and put Google Places and reviews at the top.
- Groupon won’t sell? Spend billions from other businesses to destroy them.
- Twitter and Facebook innovate on search? Take their content, whine when they try and stop you then spend billions to prevent their growth and hopefully destroy them.
- Apple working on a touchscreen smartphone? Spend billions from another business and copy everything you can, down to swipes and apps.
- Need a smartphone operating system with Java. Take Java and use it for your own ends.
- Need a location mapping technology and Skyhook won’t sell? Spend billions from your monopoly profits and strongarm your partners and drive Skyhook out of business.
- Buy up the big travel search sites.
- Claim you are open source but share nothing related to what your business claims to be about — search, and nothing related to how you make your money — advertising
- Claim you are open and standards based but control who gets access to your smartphone operating system
- Like all rich monopolists, they spend millions hiring high priced lobbyists and public relations teams inside the Beltway — for their direct benefit
That feeds into Gruber’s second post on this week’s patent actions, which seems to reassert all these copying facts:
Google seems to feel entitled to copy whatever it wants. Android copies the UI from the iPhone. Places copied data from Yelp. Google+ copies from Facebook. Their coupon thing is a clone of Groupon. And yet it’s Google that acts as though it has been offended when these competitors fight back.
And from MG Siegler today:
Increasingly, Google is trying to do everything. And they have the arrogance to think that they can. And it’s pissing people off.
That goes on to cite examples of various companies behind the scenes who feel like Google just copies everything they do. Apparently, the three remaining people at Yahoo involved with search that haven’t jumped ship to work at Google are among these.
Time for a little push-back. Before I do so, just as I don’t believe that John Gruber is some Apple fanboy who only sees things from a positive Apple point of view, I’d hope that what I’m writing isn’t seen as coming from a Google fanboy.
I’m doing some pushback not out of great love for Google but rather from a great love of balance and reasonable discussion. Right now, we could use some balance on all the copying accusations that are flying around, I’d say.
Yelp & Google Copying
I’ll start with Yelp. If Yelp doesn’t want its information to be in Google, it can opt-out of Google. In fact, Yelp did do that, and not just from all of Google but specifically from Google Places, last year.
Yelp came back to Google voluntarily, and when you look at CEO Jeremy Stoppelman’s quotes from May, it’s not surprising:
We are unhappy with the way Google uses our users’ review on its Places page. However, there is no solution to the problem…
Google’s position is that we can take ourselves out of its search index if we don’t want them to use our reviews on Places….
But that is not an option for us, and other sites like us – such as TripAdvisor – as we get a large volume of our traffic via Google search…
We just don’t get any value out of our reviews appearing on Google places and haven’t been given an option other than to remove ourselves from search, how to improve this situation.
Let’s be clear here. Yelp argues that Google’s use of its reviews in Google Places has been harmful. Yet, Yelp argues that it can’t leave Google because Google sends its so much free traffic. So which is it? Google is killing Yelp or essential to Yelp’s survival? It’s hard to have it both ways.
Still, I actually have a great deal of sympathy for Yelp’s concerns. Even though they clearly benefit hugely from being in Google, Google’s formerly heavy aggregation of their reviews (and reviews from others on the web like TripAdvisor) have allowed Google to have review pages of its own. It would be nice for content owners to say OK to some uses and not to others, even more than Google already currently allows.
(By the way, Bing and Yahoo do the same aggregating of content from Yelp and other review sites. Google’s direct competitors in search do this, but Google shouldn’t? I guess because what, Google’s bigger than the others?).
As for Hall’s point about Google shoving Yelp’s reviews at the bottom of Google Places content, that argument makes no sense. Google did recently make that type of change, and it seems to be exactly what Yelp wanted. So Google’s damned for “copying” and then damned for not copying — and the not copying argument is bizarrely used to say they copy?
Groupon & Google Copying
Apparently, from what I read with Hall and Gruber, Groupon was a coupon site that sprang from the aether and into the mind of Andrew Mason in 2008. Since Mason originated couponing, if anyone tries a similar business, they should be shunned as copy monsters.
I exaggerate, obviously. But I don’t get the logic here. Is there a patent that Google’s violating on this idea? Or is it just that people shouldn’t copy what other people do? Or is it just that Google shouldn’t copy what other people do?
Wait, I know. It’s because Google tried to buy Groupon but couldn’t get it. If that’s the case, this seems a strange business lesson. If you can’t purchase something you’re interested in, the advice is that you should never go into that business at all?
Android & Google Copying
Gruber tells us that the Android UI was copied from Apple. Hall says that the idea of a touchscreen smartphone was copied by the iPhone.
Newsflash. As a Windows Mobile user from 2004, I had a touchscreen smartphone that ran apps long before that idea ever punched itself out of Apple. My phone did things that Apple later copied, too, such as the innovative copy-and-paste feature. It was magical.
I currently use both an Android phone and an iPhone (both of which I’ve purchased). In my last review, while there are use cases where the Android phone is better, the iPhone still remains are far more relaxing mobile operating system to use. A pleasure to use. And that tells me if Google’s just copying everything, it’s done a pretty bad job of it.
Bottom line: Samsung can make its Android phones look like iPhones, but that doesn’t mean they act like them.
Google Unfairly Funds Other Businesses
I was bemused by the number of times Hall was upset about Google apparently taking money from “other businesses” to fund new ones in its quest for global domination. I’m not sure what businesses don’t spend from one area to help build another. How else are they supposed to start anything new?
When Microsoft launched Internet Explorer, I’m pretty sure the price it charged was zero. And you didn’t have to buy Windows to have IE. Apple hands Safari out like candy on Halloween. If I want to use it on Windows, I just head on over to Apple — there I get it for free. I don’t pay for iTunes, either.
Perhaps it’s that you shouldn’t keep spending and spending on one business in hopes of growing it. You know, after you’ve tossed so many millions into something, you should just give it up. So much for Xbox getting to where it is now. And sorry, Bing, I guess you die.
Google Expands Too Much
Maybe it’s just that when you’re trying to do “everything” rather than your particular niche, that’s when it all goes wrong. Clearly, Microsoft should have just stuck with DOS. Or, if it was going to do Windows, creating an office suite was a step too far. Certainly creating a gaming platform, as well as now two different mobile platforms was the company just being arrogant.
And Apple? Aren’t those the people who just made computers? What were they thinking suddenly being a music player company by rolling out the iPod. It’s not like we didn’t have MP3 players then. Or when exactly did Apple declare it was a consumer electronics company by releasing a phone and an TV platform? What’s next?
Success Doesn’t Come From Copying
Are we really going to have a copython to decide who copies whom the most? I’ve watched people in the search space copy ideas from each other over and over again. Sometimes the copying goes on so much that a “victim” yelling about something that a competitor “stole” doesn’t even realize how they themselves might have stolen it from someone else.
One popular meme is that all of Google’s design changes have been borrowed from Bing. This all happens in an alternative universe where Ask.com apparently never existed. And even some of the Ask innovations came from others.
Everyone copies from each other. But copying an idea from someone else doesn’t guarantee success. Windows and MacOS grew into successes from Xerox PARC origins but not because Microsoft and Apple got the secret keys to a graphic UI. It’s because both companies worked hard and built compelling operating systems with their own ideas.
No business that just copies will succeed, I’d say. That business has to have something else, a vision, an infrastructure, a unique twist along with their own fresh ideas. That’s why debates over copying can be so tiresome.
Or do we really think that Microsoft’s phone business is healthy because it gets licensing fees from some Android handset makers?
Expansion Brings Disruption
As for the expanding everywhere issue, it’s not that expansion is bad — nor is Google really expanding into “everything” or alone in expanding. It’s that expansion can bring disruption, and if you’re an established business comfortable in an area that’s being disrupted, it can be easier to cry foul that to keep innovating.
That’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate concerns that any company might use one aspect of its businesses to support others in ways that violate anti-trust laws. Google, of course, it undergoing scrutiny about this now both in the US and the EU.
Stick To The Concern At Hand
To me, the stuff I’ve read from Hall, from Gruber and from others often just seems knee-jerk responses against Google and its growth, rather than serious examinations of complex issues. Google’s big, we don’t like it, so let’s take some cheap, surface shots at them.
Some of this is understandable in the sense that Google does come across has having a selective case of the whines. When things go well for Google, even if those things might be perceived as unfair to others, it doesn’t speak up.
But still, if there are real concerns about patents, then let’s see those argued on the merits of those patents and the patent system. Pulling in unrelated upsets about any company — Google, Apple, Microsoft — doesn’t clarify anything.
Hard To See Google As A Victim
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that Google is perfect and only does the “nice” thing. Google’s just another company, which acts in its own self-interest and can act just as ruthlessly as any of its competitors to get what it wants.
One of the most disturbing areas is the conflict of Google hosting content as opposed to pointing outbound. Its Google Places pages are arguably destinations of their own. Its YouTube pages certainly are. Should a search engine also have destinations sites? If not, then should that standard be applied to all search engines, as Google’s not alone here.
Google’s also a big fan of the “open,” yet despite the Open Handset Alliance, I still can’t get a pure Android phone on Verizon. And despite Open Social, there’s still no API for Google+.
In the tech space, I think many people understand that Google is no longer that scrappy little company of old with the fun beach balls and the quirky founders. It’s not. It’s just like all the others.
But within Google, there are still a good number of people who don’t get this. They honestly believe they’re fighting the good fight and seem to expect that blog posts laying out their views about why Google is right will be seen as somehow statistically proven and self-evident. It’s no wonder why these posts can then blow back at them.
The sad thing is that we could probably use more of these frank, no-bull discussions about important issues. Perhaps Google or another company will find a way to cast them where they don’t feel self-serving, or where the company doesn’t come across as whining.
And maybe we’ll have discussions that stick to the issues, rather than turning into therapy sessions for getting everything disliked about a company off our collective chests.
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Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.
(Some images used under license from Shutterstock.com.)
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