On Google & Being “Evil”

google-good-evil-featured“I don’t think they were ever not evil,” I’m quoted as saying about Google in a New York Times column yesterday. True enough, I said that. But I wanted to provide some further context about my comments as well as the truly disastrous two months Google has had on the public relations front.

In Google Many Still Trust

Make no mistake. Most of Google’s users clearly trust the company to keep using its products. The hoopla about its forthcoming changes to its privacy policy? Despite being blown way out of proportion by politicians and media outlets alike, there’s no mass movement to abandon Google. Take a tour of its help forums, as I’ve explained before. It’s not a huge topic.

We’ve even had two different brand surveys out recently showing Google getting top marks with consumers. Of course, the attention over the past two months might change future perceptions. But I’d say there’s a lot more smoke than fire going on, about the company’s reputations woes with the general public.

But “Just Trust Us” Doesn’t Work

That’s not to take away that Google has had serious problems, a string of errors that undermine the faith it asks people to put in it, in particular its two biggest critics: politicians and the press.

Consider my other quote from the New York Times column:

They are a big company, and any big company is always going to have something happen that they don’t expect. But these things keep happening where you can’t even trust their word.

Pretty strong stuff. It pains me to say it, when I know so many people at Google truly and honestly mean for their company to be doing good things, to be trusted.

It also pains me when I know Google has done many good things for the web as a whole. The fact that sites don’t have to pay just for the chance to be showing up in “free” listings in search engines is largely down to the force of Google.

But I’m sorry, when you post that an anti-Google ad was pulled as being factually incorrect, and it wasn’t, that’s an example of people not being able to trust Google’s word.

When you sign an agreement over illegal drug ads, where the lead attorney in the case isn’t shy in saying your CEO knew about the sales, that harms the trust in your word.

When you decide that it’s perfectly fine to override the default privacy settings in Safari, so that you can make +1 buttons work in your ads, that harms the trust in your word.

Just Another Company

None of this means that Google is untrustworthy about everything. It doesn’t mean that Google is constantly lying, or that it’s not to be trusted at all. It certainly doesn’t mean Google is as “bad” as some of the other companies that are out there. But it does mean that Google can’t rely on the “just trust us” type of attitude I feel it has long had.

Many of the stumbles I’ve seen Google make over the years have come, in my view, because people within the company have viewed Google as “the good guys” fighting against “evil-doers” who don’t want to look out for users. In particular, Microsoft was Google’s long-time nemesis, the company that Google didn’t want to become. Lately, Apple and Facebook have been, to me, the new evils that Google feels it’s fighting against.

The problem is, I think Google has failed to understand that along the way, it has become just another big company. It’s a big company that makes mistakes, like any big company will do. But unlike most big companies, the entire “Don’t Be Evil” mantra it created for itself years ago has given it farther to fall.

Even within Google, some knew what a problem that mantra was going to create. To quote from Steven Levy’s excellent book, In The Plex (which I highly recommend everyone read):

“So I suggested something that would make people feel uncomfortable but also be interesting. It popped into my mind that ‘Don’t be evil’ would be a catchy and interesting statement. And people laughed. But I said, ‘No, really.’”

The slogan made Stacy Sullivan uncomfortable. It was so negative. “Can’t we phrase it as ‘Do the right thing’ or something more positive?” she asked. Marissa and Salar agreed with her. But the geeks—Buchheit and Patel—wouldn’t budge. “Don’t be evil” pretty much said it all, as far as they were concerned. They fought off every attempt to drop it from the list.

“They liked it the way it was,” Sullivan would later say with a sigh. “It was very important to engineering that they were not going to be like Microsoft, they were not going to be an evil company.”

Oh, that the geeks that rule Google even to this day would have listened. Because the world isn’t binary as they can view it. That “either good or evil” viewpoint they embraced is now coming back to haunt Google.

“Don’t Be Evil” Was Incredibly Dumb

That leads to my other quote in the New York Times:

When I asked Mr. Sullivan if Google was now too big not to be evil, he said, “I don’t think they were ever not evil.”

That’s correct. I don’t think Google was ever “not evil.” Nor do I think that Google was ever “not good.” I think, like any company, it’s not perfect. But unlike most companies, it created an entire “Don’t Be Evil” mantra for itself that it could have never lived up to.

Now if you’re from Google, and you read my quote and are feeling I’m somehow out of line, let me quote what your former CEO (and current executive chairman) Eric Schmidt said at Davos in 2006:

It took Google Inc. more than a year to make the decision that offering a censored version of its search services in China would be a lesser evil than boycotting business in the country altogether, according to Google Inc. Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Eric Schmidt.

“We concluded that although we weren’t wild about the restrictions, it was even worse to not try to serve those users at all,” Schmidt said. “We actually did an evil scale and decided not to serve at all was worse evil,” he said, referring to the company’s famous “don’t be evil” creed.

See, when your own CEO talks about making an evil scale, so that Google can decide how evilish a particular action is going to be, Google is by its own definition evil to some degree. I’m saying nothing one of your own leaders hasn’t already said.

Losing The Benefit Of The Doubt

Like I said, I think most Google users still have plenty of faith in Google, to the degree they’ll keep using its products. It’s not like running off to Microsoft is going to give them any type of better privacy, as I’ve written before.

I do think, however, Google has lost a lot of the benefit of the doubt that the tech and general press would have given it in the past. Like I wrote before, accusations that would have been ignored or even laughed off now get treated more seriously. And they have to be treated that way, because Google’s own stumbles mean that as a third-party, you have to question more if some of it might be true.

Some Advice To Consumers, Politicians, Google & Competitors

For consumers, I’d come back to what I’ve said before. In the end, it’s a question of whether you trust the company in overall. If you generally trust Google, you should be OK. Goodness knows you have more control over your data with them than you probably do with your credit card company, your grocery store loyalty card or what Target compiles about you (all things the proposed Privacy Bill Of Rights might simply ignore).

For politicians, you know like all those attorney generals worried about Google’s privacy policy change? Hey, newsflash — that type of sharing happens with other big internet companies, too. Where’s the concern over that?

As for Google, my advice is simple. Stop trying to define yourself as the anti-someone else. Stop trying to think that if you can just disprove what someone says or catch them in the act of something wrong, that this will somehow make Google seem more trustworthy.

Just be as trustworthy as you can, in a self-evident manner. Figure out a way to involve outsiders more in big changes like your privacy policy shift. Address misconceptions factually, and in a careful manner without sloppy mistakes that only make things worse. Maybe consider a new motto that isn’t having you defining yourself against evil.

And competitors, you’ve got to be having a good time right now, watching holier-than-thou Google squirm. Just remember that when the tar flies, it tends to hit everyone. The White House should be proposing better privacy protection for consumers online and offline. But it’s the online companies coming under the microscope.

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About The Author: is Founding Editor of Marketing Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search marketing and internet marketing issues, who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Peter Kasting

    On the contrary, as a Googler, I think dropping “Don’t be evil” would be a huge mistake.  You are correct when you note that that slogan gives Google much further to fall when it makes mistakes.  But that serves as a greater incentive not to make such mistakes.  If Google had a different motto or none at all, and didn’t get called out in the press for the kinds of problems that have occurred the last few months, don’t you think it would be much more likely for more such problems to happen in the future?

    With our existing motto, we have good public reason to hold each other’s feet to the fire internally.  And as long as we do the best we can, we’re more likely to hire idealists like me who really value a company that is trying to do the right thing and not be “just another big company”.  Maybe that makes the folks like me stupid — or maybe it’s an important positive feedback loop that, despite a bad few months, has not yet lost all its power.

    I still believe that Google can, should, and will be different — not “just another big company” as you assert that we have indeed become.  The day I stop believing that is the day I start looking for another employer.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Peter, I think internally Google should work hard, as I know the company has, not to be just another big company. I’d love that this is also your public goal, as well. I don’t want that given up.

    But one problem with “Don’t Be Evil” is that it defines every other company but Google as evil, but it’s nature. That’s how I think outsiders would interpret it. That’s how I think some of your competitors would interpret it. And plenty of employees at other companies don’t believe they’re being evil, either.

    That’s why shifting the motto to something different might help. “Be good” or “Be good to our customers” doesn’t mean you still won’t get your feet held to the fire. But it does mean you’re not inadvertently suggesting everyone else is bad. That motto measure you against yourself. Don’t Be Evil measures you against what you perceive everyone else being.

    The other thing is that Googlers really, really need to understand that outside of Google, politicians, the press and perhaps a growing number of your customers do see you as just another company. I can’t say enough how many times I’ve felt like Google has pushed out some change that causes concerns with the reaction of “but we’d never do that!”

    Just saying or thinking that Google would never do something because you know the internal culture doesn’t cut it in a world where people are used to companies doing whatever they can get away with.

    Be good — that would be awesome. I wish more companies would. But don’t assume that people just believe you’re being good. You have to prove it each and every time.

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    A better motto might have been “Don’t be selfish”.  Adhering to a standard like that would have helped Google avoid some of its recent mistakes, such as drumming up a lot of fear and uncertainty over SOPA with misleading statements about it breaking the Internet, destroying freedom of expression, and being bad in general (all nonsense — except that Google’s Public DNS would have to be radically altered and Google would have to stop participating in the estimated $38 billion annual “dark” economy built on top of IPR theft).

    Truly putting users first means you have to be willing to take a hit on your stock price and revenue stream.  I’m not convinced Google has quite figured out that part of the equation, but I’m willing to wait and see.

  • Peter Kasting

    I really disagree that “Don’t be evil” on its own implies that all other companies are evil.  I agree with you that plenty of people at other companies, and in fact plenty of other companies, want to do the right thing and be more ethical than the minimum pure self-interest would demand.  I don’t think Google is explicitly or implicitly saying that that’s not the case.  There’s absolutely nothing in those three words that speaks about anyone but Google.  Even if the origin of the motto came from people who were painfully aware of how evil they felt another company was acting, that still doesn’t mean the result they came up with passes judgment on the entire rest of the world as you seem to think all outsiders believe.

    I also think it’s very clear to many of us Googlers that a lot of people do, in fact, see us as “just another company”.  Any Googler who thinks otherwise is blindingly ignorant about the rest of the world.  Sadly there are definitely a cohort of Googlers who are, in fact, that ignorant. In any case you are completely right when you note that we need to prove we’re doing the right thing and not assume others’ good will.

  • fjpoblam

    I think dropping “Don’t be evil” would be a very good thing. I think it is possibly not understood in the manner intended. 

    First, we may be aware that many take it as “Don’t DO evil” [emphasis mine, but I've seen that quote on blog comments, many times]. The semantic difference is substantial. An example is that one may easily _do_ evil without _being_ evil.

    And could a few even think it has something to do with doing *good*, or that one may be justifiably disappointed because it doesn’t?

    But more important, I think “Don’t be evil” is intended to remove morality from the arena of Google activities. The intent is to place Google in a[n ideal] realm of pure logic. Attainable? No: Google a being made of subjective humans. Maybe they’ve achieved an automated car: but not an automated [amoral] system programmer.

    Maybe Google should simply aspire to one goal: eschew obfuscation.

  • http://gravitationalpull.net/wp/ ampressman

    What? I think by far most Internet citizens feel that Go Daddy was evil for supporting SOPA and Google and many, many other web sites that fought against it were doing the right thing.

  • Subhorup Dasgupta

     I cannot comment on what the guiding principle at Google may have been in the early years, but this article was very informative, and offers a good deal of food for thought. I too wrote about my understanding of how Google got to this point where its privacy policy and its monopolistic behavior is becoming more and more noticeable. Maybe readers of this blog will find it useful.

    http://subhorup.blogspot.com/2012/01/google-privacy-policy-2012.html

  • http://ciarannorris.co.uk Ciaran

    Put simply, “Don’t be evil” is a simplistic, even childish way of looking at and judging the world. Very few things in this world are black or white, and selling advertising certainly isn’t. Google is, depending how you track these things, a teenager now – it’s time to grow up.

  • Anonymous

    It is truly amazing to me that the “evils” of Google are touted by the media, but the same media ignore the truly disgusting actions of competitors (and potential competitors) such as the landline telephone companies and cell phone carriers.

    Think about it.  Google collects huge quantities of information, anonymizes it, then uses that information to target advertising to you.  This is the same amount of advertising that you would get anyway, just not specifically targeted to you based on your browsing habits.  For the life of me, I don’t see the harm in that.  Plus, you get great services – email, web browser, various google voice services – all for no charge at all.

    On the other hand, witness the telephone companies that engage in blatant price gouging and allow unscrupulous affiliates to “cram” bogus charges, such as phony “security” services, “preferred” message services and outrageously expensive long distance services (for land lines), onto your monthly phone bill.  This egregious behavior has gone on for decades, but the same media that criticize Google are silent with regard to the phone companies.

    Right now you can avoid a $10 monthly charge to Verizon for SMS messages by setting up Google Voice to route your messages.  Is seeing targeted advertising instead of blanket random advertising worth it to save $10/month?  You bet, in my view!

    Sure, there is the potential for Google to abuse the information it gathers.  But so far I have seen no evidence of this.  Until I do, I will continue to use Google’s services and encourage it to provide more.

    One good example of “more” is Google Wallet.  Soon there will be several companies competing for control over point-of-sale (POS) financial transactions using mobile devices.  Apparently Verizon (as well as other carriers) wants this lucrative business, since it appears that Verizon has blocked Google from implementing its “wallet” service on certain devices (e.g., Galaxy Nexus).  Which company would you trust for your financial transactions – Google (or maybe Apple) or Verizon?  Based on its history, I would not trust Verizon or the other telephone carriers, but I might trust Google or Apple.

    In fact, the large, well-capitalized companies like Google and Apple are well-positioned to crowd the phone carriers out of the POS transactions business and other services.  This will diminish the phone carriers to the status of “dumb pipes”, which is probably what they should be anyway.

  • http://esjr.pip.verisignlabs.com/ esjr

    I have struck them — Google — off my dance-card : exit chrome [enter comodo], exit google DNS, 3rd party cookies etc.
    Some of their recent moves, even before the new ‘privacy’ policy, like their ‘creative’ use of certain protocols (TCP, HTTP and DNS) reek of ‘entitlement’…old MS at it’s devious worst spring to mind.
    Apart from the privacy invading chicanery, the ‘model’ is destroying true content : most sites no longer tell/sell or service anything except their ‘service providers’ up stream with data-streams on clicks and eye-balls.
    The whole thing is going the way of the banks : the business is no longer the business, the ‘derivatives’ are.
    sic transit…

  • Anonymous

    Pass the cool-aid!

  • Anonymous

    Google is a huge corporate profit machine beholding to its shareholder’s interests, just like any other large public corporation.

    This holy of holy religious talk is just plain silly!

  • Anonymous

    Well then, maybe they should change it to:

    “less evil than some”

  • http://www.thenetworkgarden.com hypermark

    Great post. I blogged a few days back that Google had “jumped the shark,” but that perhaps wrongly implies that the company’s best days are behind it, when that clearly need not be the case. It’s almost like they need a messaging “do over” so they can gain the halo effect for all of what they are doing right, without having to live up to a bunch of sanctimony that they themselves created.

    Can we just say it already? Google has ‘Jumped the Shark’
    http://bit.ly/wWHamY

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1581498299 Niki Bright

    I think any company, no matter how big they are, where you can not reach the appropriate executive by phone is an evil company.  Both Facebook and Google think they can blow people off by referring them to outrageously inadequate online “customer service” pages. I’ve been in business for decades and when I have called the president of Sony or GM (w/ serious concerns) I get through, or I get a competent secretary who takes a message and the person gets back to me.  Good luck with that when trying to contact one of these new-age “evil punk-run” companies.

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