Does Google Need to Do Some Soul Searching?
It's a strange thing to try Googling the phrase "Google Secrets." It’s like walking into a fast food restaurant and asking them to list off all their health violations. Awkward. So I switched to Yahoo (Stock Quote: YHOO) and Bing (Stock Quote: MSFT) to research much of this article.
There is no question that Google (Stock Quote: GOOG) is a dominant force in today’s world. It was the most visited site in the U.S. every day of last year, with the exception of Christmas, when Facebook managed to beat it out. But the question is whether Google has become too powerful to be good.
Google certainly doesn’t hide the fact it is a big business, but it does try to come off as a more benevolent business by clinging to its motto, “Don't Be Evil.” As they say in their code of conduct, these words mean “following the law, acting honorably and treating each other with respect.”
But does it actually live up to those criteria?
A Tough Place to Work
It’s often said that Google is one of the best companies in the world at which to work. If you’re a computer programmer, there is no more prestigious place to be employed. Plus the Google offices are supposed to be heavenly, complete with indoor slides and scooters. For photos of one of their offices, check here.
Last year, several messages from former employees were leaked, explaining why they had decided to leave Google. Employees complained of pay cuts, poor relocation packages and a ridiculously long hiring process. One employee worked at Google for ten months and said he felt “demoralized.” Another complained that there are just too many brilliant people in one place for any individual to really stand out. “I had the feeling of being swallowed by a giant borg,” one said, in a nerdy reference to Star Trek.
It’s not just former employees who complain. We’ve heard one anecdote about a current Googler (who shall remain nameless) who works so many hours that his wife was actually asked to come in and teach the chefs at the Google office how to make him dinner so he would never need to leave. Yikes!
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Google Avoids Paying Taxes
No one likes to pay taxes, but Google seems especially eager to pull every string they can to dodge the IRS. Recently, the company came under fire for paying only 600,000 British pounds in taxes despite making more than 1.25 billion pounds in revenue in Britain. Google managed to get around this by “channeling revenues through Ireland,” which has a more favorable tax system to big companies. British politicians and even the prime minister have likened this to a kind of tax evasion. We should say that Google is not the first to apply this policy. Others like Microsoft and Dell (Stock Quote: DELL) also have relied on Ireland to save money. But Google also pulled a similar stunt in the United States. Back in 2007, the company was sued for procuring massive tax exemptions in North Carolina.
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Google's China Problem
Few things have tarnished Google’s image as much as the news that it would introduce a search engine in China which would cave to China’s strict censorship laws. Back in 2006, when the search engine launched there, advocates argued that it was important to provide a reliable flow of information into the country, even if some of it was censored. But as CNET notes, in the few years since then, Google has been accused of functioning as a lackey to the Chinese government by regulating the degree of censorship from time to time. To make matters worse, the company has refused to be transparent about the methods they use to determine what should and shouldn’t be censored. They may be following one country’s law, but does that mean they are acting honorably?
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Evil Phone Company
When Google Voice came out, many hailed it as a wonderful innovation for phone technology. But one problem with Voice is that it also blocks calls to so-called “out of network” areas – usually rural locales which are more expensive to call. AT&T took issue with this in particular, pointing out that there were churches, colleges and nuns that would have their calls blocked because they fall into these zones. While AT&T is far from perfect, there is obviously still something wrong when Google acts like a phone company but blocks its users calls. This prompted the FCC to look into the situation further.
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It’s no secret that Google controls the majority of all search traffic. In 2008, the company owned 63.5 percent of the search market, and, even more impressively, 90 percent of the growth that occurred in the search market that year was captured by Google. New competitors like Bing have emerged recently, but as of November, 2009, Google had more than 70 percent of the market share.
This has led some to label the company a monopoly. On multiple occasions, the United States was rumored to be taking court action against Google for getting too big, first when it tried to partner with Yahoo in an advertising deal and another time over its plan to get the rights to all the world’s books (more on that in the next slide.)
Advocates argue that the company, though dominant, is not deliberately trying to stifle competitors, and in fact, competition is always just “a click away.” But critics and competitors claim that Google applies some nefarious tactics to maximize their control, often at the expense of other sites and businesses.
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Google Holds Books Hostage
A few years ago, Google decided to start scanning books and make much of the information available in its book search program. It didn’t take long for authors and publishers to mobilize and sue the search giant for copyright infringement. But in 2008, the case was settled and Google was forced to pay $125 million to settle all the lawsuits. To put it differently, Google essentially bought the rights to the books for $125 million, ultimately giving them the latitude to republish any books not currently covered by an active U.S. copyright. That’s not a bad deal for the money, but many have taken issue with it. A recent court decision in France banned Google from scanning any books published in that country.
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Google Controls What We Read
Since nearly three quarters of all searches occur through Google, this gives the site an extraordinary amount of influence over the content we read. “One way that Google exploits this control is by imposing covert ‘penalties’ that can strike legitimate and useful Web sites, removing them entirely from its search results or placing them so far down the rankings that they will in all likelihood never be found,” Adam Raff wrote in the New York Times. Raff is the co-founder of an Internet technology firm called Foundem that was allegedly buried in the Google search.
He is not the only one bitter at the search giant. Other sites, like Onenewspage.com, have mysteriously disappeared from Google’s search, with no explanation. Needless to say, when this happens, their revenue takes a severe hit.
Google's Love-Hate Relationship with Journalism
Most news sites rely heavily on the traffic they get through Google, but it is a tense relationship. The managing editor of the Wall Street Journal complained that Google’s algorithms end up favoring the wrong kind of stories. "Google is great for Google, but it's terrible for content providers, because it divides that content quantitatively rather than qualitatively,” he said in an interview. In other words, Google’s algorithms don’t really take quality writing and in depth reporting into account.
The Examiner is a great example of this. This internet publication produces thousands of stories a day that piggyback on popular topics already in the news. And their stories usually perform very well on Google. But as Time Magazine notes, there is very little actual reporting involved, which leads some to argue the wrong kind of news site is profiting from Google.
Others have complained that Google essentially steals content from newspapers by making it easy for readers to read the articles for free. (For more about this, read MainStreet's coverage here.) To Google’s credit, they recently tried to reign in this problem with their First Click Free policy that limits the number of pages readers can see on the news feed without paying.
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Don't Try Googling Google
Google may be a great tool for searching most things, but think twice before you try researching the founders of Google (pictured here.) Back in 2005, a reporter at CNET tried to find out more about their biographies and noticed that there was very little information available on the search engine. The reporter managed to dig up some basic information about where the founders live and how much they are worth. Not exactly an expose, but it infuriated Google nonetheless. Representatives from the company announced that they would not speak to anyone at CNET for a full year. Don’t be evil? How about don’t be paranoid.
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Big Brother is Watching
Ever since Orwell published the masterpiece, 1984, people have been on the lookout for the rise of a society monitored and policed by an all-seeing eye. But who would have thought that Google could be that company? After mapping out the vast majority of the world, Google is now working to fill in the gaps so that its Street View feature can be complete. The problem is that some consider this a fundamental invasion of privacy. And already, some embarrassing and incriminating moments have been caught on Google Street View, causing people to complain that Google is spying on them.
In 2008, one Pittsburgh couple tried to sue the company for infringing on their privacy. The case itself was thrown out, but it did yield one surprising statement from Google. “Today's satellite-image technology means that...complete privacy does not exist," Google said in response to the lawsuit, according to CNET. The company went on to say that the "plaintiffs live in the 21st century United States where every step upon private property is not deemed by law to be an actionable trespass...” so there you have it, privacy, according to Google, is a thing of the past, unless you are deep within the confines of your own home.
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Big Brother is Also Reading Everything You Type
Many of those who use Google for e-mail, searches or chatting with friends don’t realize that Google is always reading what you type. When Gmail first launched, privacy groups were up in arms after learning that Google had programs analyzing the content of all the emails sent in order to better customize the ads that would be displayed on the page. These ads are crucial to Google, as they make up the majority of its $20 billion annual revenue.
The company has actually gone further than that. They also keep track of what you search for and what you click on. To keep track where all this information is coming from, they place a file on your computer (aka a cookie) that helps them identify your browser, IP address and potentially even your location in the world. This file stays on your computer for years, whether or not you continue to use Google. As MotherJones.com puts it, “Google knows more about you than the National Security Agency ever will.” Even the Chief Executive of Microsoft tried to sting Google’s popularity by stating this fact. The problem is that even if Google doesn’t mean to do harm, sometimes mistakes happen that can put your privacy in jeopardy.
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The Hand of Google is in Everything
As David Carr declared in the New York Times last year, Google has become “the Wal-Mart of the Internet.” And like Wal-Mart, the company will endure a never ending amount of scrutiny from all the businesses and consumers it affects. Google will only get bigger in the coming years. In the last year alone, the company has introduced its own music streaming service and a highly competitive new phone called the Nexus One (as well as the launch of their own e-commerce site to distribute it.) And this year, the company plans to buy one company every single month.
Ken Auletta put the problem best in the beginning of his book Googled: The End of the World As We Know It. "Today, Google's software initiatives encroach on every media industry, from telephone to television to advertising to newspapers to magazines to book publishers to Hollywood studios to digital companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Apple or eBay. For companies built on owning and selling or distributing that information, Google can be perceived as the new 'Evil Empire.'"
With that kind of expansion and power, we would settle for the company to be decent, even if they do act evil once in a while.
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The World Domination Problem
All of these facts contribute to a very significant marketing challenge for Google. As more and more people come to think of Google as an all knowing, all consuming, all powerful entity, they will undoubtedly begin to mistrust the company… perhaps even suspect that they have designs on total world domination. That they might even design and construct a master rates of cyborgs that will become self-aware and overpower their human makers, and ultimately declare war on all humanity. Hence the t-shirt to the right, which equates Google with the computer company run amok from the Terminator series of movies. Maybe James Cameron really can predict the future.
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