Is Google Good or Evil?
2002. Google was still very much the golden boy of the internet. Their clean and relevant results were even then making the competition look dated. Best of all, they were one of the good guys; their famous motto, “Don’t be evil” seemed to offer hope that the brave new world of online business (still shaken by the dot-com bubble going pop) wouldn’t be weighed down by the excesses of ruthless profiteering then dogging the likes of Microsoft.
2012. Google divides the search engine optimisation community. On the one hand there are those who decry it for supposedly abandoning its values and engaging in exploitative, anti-trust activities. On the other hand, there are those who defend it for building a hugely successful business model on the delivery of relevant and refined search results to its users. Both sides make compelling arguments, but when we get down to it, is Google good or evil?
At KPI, we work with a number of charities to help them make the most of the Google Grants scheme. Under the terms of the scheme, approved charities are allowed to bid up to $1 for certain keywords but, if they win the bid, do not have to make that payment. An approved charity will begin with a free AdWords budget of $10,000 a month. If they meet this limit for two consecutive months, then they become eligible for an increased budget of $40,000 a month. In the last month we have helped a military charity gain that $40,000 budget, a hospice charity has been approved for a $10,000 a month budget, and we have helped two further charities – one working with animals, another historic buildings – make applications for the scheme. Here then we have an example of the good Google can do; helping worthy causes to secure leads and Pay Per Click advertising spaces that might otherwise be denied to them by the larger marketing budgets of commercial advertisers. Of course, no corporate charity scheme is completely selfless; large corporations are perfectly well aware of the good press charity work brings them. The vast sums fast food chains and soft drinks manufacturers pour into youth sports initiatives are indicative of their roles in the soaring levels of childhood obesity more than they are of their general good heartedness. That’s not to say the good PR negates the fine work charities are able to do with that money, so we’ll chalk that one up in Google’s favour.
Few SEO savvy people can have missed the huge levels of criticism Google has come in for over the last month. For a start, Google has stopped supplying information to website owners on the non-paid search terms that bring logged in users to their sites. As well as being a bit of a headache from an SEO point of view, it also highlights a certain hypocrisy on Google’s part. Their claim is that they are defending the privacy of their users. A fair enough concern – plenty of web users are horrified the first time they are told how much information on them the average website owner retains – but if this really is Google’s main consideration, then why do they continue to supply data for those users who arrived via paid search? Because they can make money out of it. We know most web users prefer organic search results over paid search results. If SEOs and other Google Analytics users aren’t told what brought the vast majority of people to their site, how are they meant to make their content relevant? This attitude to keyword data is a distortion of search engine use designed to help Google and not its users.
Loading of the SERPs for Google’s own ends is also evidenced in the recent implementation of Google Search Plus Your World in the US. This new feature integrates results from Google+ with those from the rest of the web, ostensibly to make search a more social and individually relevant experience. In practice, it’s been met with widespread derision. Quite apart from the ridiculous presumption of it all, Google’s results now favour its own services over potentially more relevant results. Examples abound of such distortions, including searches for “Britney Spears” returning her Google+ page above her far more popular (and better populated) Facebook profile. A good search engine should be like a butler; always there when you need it, and delivering what you need discreetly and promptly. You don’t expect a butler to sit down and start tucking into the hors d’oeuvres.
But does all of this make Google evil? The only reason we are having this debate at all is because of the ubiquity of Google as a search engine. If there is one thing online has proven far more readily than any other market place it is that consumers won’t stick with something that doesn’t work. Google’s results are still, generally speaking, the best, most relevant and easiest to use. Of course, quality doesn’t make them good either; there are any number of market-leading companies with questionable ethics. Perhaps the real bugbear here is that Google has let us down. Back in 2002 (or 2001 or 1998) it still showed us so much hope; it seemed to reassure us that you didn’t have to be exploitative to be successful. Maybe Google’s problem isn’t that they’re either good or evil; it’s that they got greedy.