Although “don’t be evil” isn’t Google’s official corporate motto, the company and its admirers have embraced the concept implicitly and explicitly. But pride goeth before a fall, and the buzz around Google isn’t just about their new social networking feature: Cynicism and disillusionment with Google is growing.
Why Do They Hate Me?
Last week I wondered out loud about this: When did everyone get so cynical and disillusioned with Google? It’s ironic that answers rolled in on Twitter and FriendFeed even as Google was stomping into their turf with Buzz. What response did I get?
- Google’s corporate censorship moves, especially in China, look pretty evil to some
- Google’s lack of innovation outside search, especially its repeated attempts to “take over” social media, soured many
- The poor and informal customer support provided by Google is notorious
- Many just don’t “get” Google’s mission anymore – are they a search engine, an advertising platform, a software or hardware vendor, or what?
Companies are going to make mistakes, especially massive and aggressive ones like Google. It is inevitable that their compromised position on freedom of speech in China (and India) would raise hackles, but the company apparently decided it was acceptable to gain entry there. But many of Google’s other moves are more troubling to some.
Paved With Good Intentions?
Almost every penny of Google’s prodigious revenue comes from personalized advertising. Google plainly states this in their annual reports: “Advertising revenues made up 99% of our revenues in 2006 and 2007 and 97% of our revenues in 2008.” The company spends about 13% of this revenue on research and development, 9% on sales and marketing, 7% on administration, and 5% on stock-based compensation. I imagine many of these numbers will come as a shock to average Internet users, many of whom probably assumed Google was less dependent on advertising revenue and spent much more money to employ and house so many great software developers.
Google’s stated mission may be “to organize the world’s information,” but that’s not what the company actually does. It runs a massive collection of Internet properties which serve to collect personal information and serve advertisements. Many of Google’s employees seem to be genuinely interested in making the world a better place, or at least organizing the world’s information, but good intentions don’t pay the bills. Shortly after launching its eponymous search service, Google began gobbling up the lucrative advertising market it now dominates.
Not everyone is bothered by this. Many, including myself, are happy users of Google’s excellent products, including search, Gmail, Reader, News, and Maps. I’ll knowingly put up with targeted ads to subsidize these services because I trust that Google really is anonymizing and protecting my information. I’m sure most users don’t really think much about privacy and freedom when searching the Internet or sending an email, but even those that do have been content with Google.
Yet even Google fans have to admit that not every product is excellent. Many, like Wave, seem half-baked while others, like Orkut, seem more like misfires. Google almost missed the boat on the social web and now seems desperate to catch up. Core technology like PubSubHubbub is heading in the right direction, but Google has been unable to stitch it all together. Perhaps Buzz will be able to ride Gmail’s coattails to success, but we have seen so many failures before.
What Is Google?
I think the core criticism of Google is more fundamental than concern about censorship, advertising, privacy, or failed products. Instead, alarms are ringing at Google’s repeated and well-funded attempts to be much more than an organizer of information.
In 2008, the company tried and failed to muscle in on wireless spectrum, a move many thought was a carefully executed trick to force open the United States mobile phone market. They then introduced their own mobile phone operating system, Android, putting themselves in direct competition with Symbian, Microsoft, and especially Apple. This intensified with the Google-branded Nexus One, the removal of CEO Eric Schmidt from Apple’s board, and the launch of multi-touch features. Google seems to be stepping up to directly challenge Apple for dominance of the new mobile computing world.
The company is also moving into fixed broadband, offering temporarily-free Wi-Fi at major airports and announcing a plan to give free gigabit fiber optic service to communities in the United States. They are becoming a telecom company with Voice, and some have suggested a buyout of T-Mobile or the launch of Google-branded phone service. Google is also a cloud computing company, a hosting provider, and even an electric power company.
Even if all of these moves are taken as support of the company’s core mission, they do lead one to question Google’s corporate mission. If their advertising business wasn’t the limitless cash cow it has historically been, I’m sure Google’s investors would be asking some hard questions. What business does an advertising company have supporting blimps, gene sequencing, and electric cars?
Even if you are not worried about the money or the wisdom of these investments, it begs the question, “what is Google?” I believe this is the source of Google’s buzz-kill. In dominating the Internet, Google has tapped into a vein of confusion, concern, mistrust, schadenfreude, and downright hostility. I suppose it comes with the territory.