14 “Is Google Evil?” Tipping Points Since 2001

Danny Sullivan on
  • Categories: Channel: Industry, Google: Critics
  • 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.


    About The Author

    Danny Sullivan
    Danny Sullivan was a journalist and analyst who covered the digital and search marketing space from 1996 through 2017. He was also a cofounder of Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land, Marketing Land, MarTech Today and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo and MarTech events. He retired from journalism and Third Door Media in June 2017. You can learn more about him on his personal site & blog He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.