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On Google & Being “Evil”
“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
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).
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.
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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