Is Google becoming evil?

Given the high standards Google set for itself with the aims of indexing the world’s information, and the mantra of ‘Don’t Be Evil’, it’s likely we hold it to higher standards than most companies. After all, in 2004, Joel Bakan described corporations in this way ‘As a psychopathic creature, the corporation can neither recognise nor act upon moral reasons to refrain from harming others. Nothing it its legal makeup limits what it can do to others in pursuit of its selfish ends, and it is compelled to cause harm when the benefits of doing so outweight the costs’.

Now whether or not Google is becoming evil, there are certainly much worse offenders around the world, but given the lofty ideals and the integral part that has played in the Google brand, any start down the slope to the activities of the traditional corporation could be damaging. You might somewhat expect it of Microsoft, or ignore it if you’re a member of the Cult of Apple, but when Google acts in ways which particularly hurt small businesses, publishers and potentially vulnerable individuals, it’s particularly jarring.

Google Logo in Building43


‘Secure search’:

The right of an individual to online privacy and security is a good thing, and difficult to argue against. The use of https by sites is a positive step and one that shouldn’t be discouraged.

But recently Google made an announcement that Google Analytics would no longer provide keyword information for users who are logged into their Google profile and using secure search. That move was done with the stated aim of privacy and currently a relatively small percentage of users are searching via the secure connection.

Two problems with that – already many people are reporting significant and growing numbers who are now hidden in terms of keyword data, and secondly, having had access to that data for years, it does not indicate in any way, shape or form who was using a specific keyword and therefore affect privacy. All I knew was that 20% of people visiting in the last month typed in ‘thewayoftheweb’ into a Google search box, regardless of whether they were secure or not, and no further information was available.

But hang on – if it really doesn’t matter to individual user privacy, could it be related to the launch of a paid Google Analytics for enterprise with a hefty price? After all, if you’re paying $150,000 for Google Analytics Premium, you’d be expecting all information.

So Google moves in a traditionally corporate way, using a freemium model to gain market share, then starting to remove features from the free version and concentrate on getting the top percentage of big users to start paying.

The people who lose out are small business and publishers, who won’t know how an increasing number of visitors are finding their site, and that number will only increase with more people staying logged into Gmail and Google+. After all, no-one can optimise for searches they don’t know are happening – although I’m not sure if the privacy still applies when I click-through on Google Adsense or Adwords advertising next to the search results, regardless of my connection.


‘Anti-social Google Reader’

There’s been a pretty big uproar regarding the redesign and loss of features which has been rolled out to Google Reader, despite the paltry week’s notice given to users. My concerns regarding the actual design are fairly minor, as it makes it slightly more difficult to use, but I can cope.

What’s difficult to reconcile is the loss of various features which are obviously and explicitly an attempt to shoehorn users into more activity on Google+, which have a number of negative effects for individuals and businesses.

  • Individuals can no longer have a basic sharing and following network within Google Reader. As opposed to the thousands of connections I had on social networks, there was a small group of around 30 or so I followed on Google Reader, simply because I was intently interested in seeing what they deemed worthy of curating and sharing on a tight subject list, without necessarily interacting with them about their holiday photos. And as with Twitter, it was asynchronous sharing – they didn’t have to know me or approve me, or figure out what I want then create a Google+ circle on that premise.  But worse is the claim that many users in more repressive countries were using Google Reader as social networks were blocked, and had connections of several thousand in many cases. That’s entirely lost now.
  • Business revenue is affected: Via RSS, and Google’s own acquisition of Feedburner, a business could display advertising in their RSS feed. In addition to losing control of sharing a full or partial RSS feed, the snippets shared to Google+ also conveniently remove any feed advertising – Google may lose their share of that revenue, but also completely control Google+ and any monetization that happens.
  • RSS is under threat: Consumer adoption of RSS has remained relatively small, but concentrated towards heavy and earl-adopting technology users. And of that group, Reader had a market share of about 70%, crushing most competitors and removing incentives to innovate in that area. If Google has decided RSS is redundant, what will happen to the popular Feedburner RSS service which powers many, many blogs RSS feeds? The analytics side of Feedburner has been pretty much permanently broken, but it still provides a simple and easy way to set up a feed which is compatible with numerous other places and services.
    In addition, for business use, it’s been possible to take the feed of Google Reader shared items, or utilise the unofficial Google Reader API to separate out tags to put onto business intranets or publish externally. Given that shared items is gone (Including my own 16,000+ articles over 5 years), what faith can you have in an unofficial API to support paying clients?


 WTF Google?

I’m certainly not against businesses making money – I’d like my own to keep earning more in the future, and my expertise is more directed towards the content and marketing side of business operations. It’s entirely possible that in such a large organisation it may just be coincidental that various changes all suggest a new self-interest which has happened just as a founder resumes control of the company and indicates more of a focus on their new social business.
I’m also enthusiastic about experimentation and change – the fact that Google Buzz and Google Wave have both been deemed failed experiments doesn’t negate the important experience and influence they may have had both within Google and externally.

But I do question whether the current focus on Google+ is causing the big G to lose some of what has made it so immensely popular and powerful. Whether that’s the influence of the success of Facebook as a walled garden which uses elements of coercion to get us to help power it in terms of advertising and brand revenue, or whether it’s just the misalignment of every non-search free product as a feeder for Google+, I can’t say.

Occupy Google+

But either way, I’m not alone in feeling unsettled by Google’s new direction, and as we’ve seen, current success doesn’t mean permanence, particularly online. Google has some security in that the integration of Gmail, Reader, Analytics, Apps for Business etc are so deep into our lives and companies that it will take a significant motivation to switch, but given the current moves from my techie friends to alternative feed readers, and the existence of established and good paid analytics alternatives, it’s not inconceivable that the move could start to happen.

And given the results of some blind search engine result testing, it appears that one of the main reasons for Google continuing to dominant search is the familiarity of the brand, rather than the results being returned in comparison to Bing – which means that losing the perception of their values may not just damage the potential success of Google+, but could also lead to a greater threat to their core search business.