In late April, Business Week ran an article that talked about how everybody seemed to be ganging up on Google. The author put together a very impressive list, with no fewer than nine different foes, ranging from single companies (such as eBay) to groups (such as human rights activists and search engine upstarts) to parts of the U.S. government (i.e. the Department of Justice). All of these organizations are gunning for Google, “lining up to keep the search giant in check,” according to the article. If Google is feeling a bit embattled by all this, it’s certainly no wonder.
But why is everyone mad at Google? What did Google ever do to them? The company was and remains one of the biggest friends that someone doing large amounts of general research on the Internet ever had, and that’s hardly something to get angry about. Or is it? Indeed, many of the organizations named in the article must come to grips with the fact that the people who find them online probably do so through Google. In some cases, they also must face the usual problems of being out competed by Google, and not just for customers, as you’ll soon see.
The author of the Business Week article explained the reasons each of Google’s enemies has for being ticked off at the company. At first glance, it may look like every one of them has a different reason to hate Google. But that’s not an accurate picture. It’s like looking at a strong magnification of an image made by an inkjet printer – all you see is each little dot, and you need to pull back in order to see the whole image.
In this article, I’m going to focus more on the reasons for anger at Google rather than exactly who is angry at the company. I think you’ll see a pattern emerge that we have seen before. I know I’m not the first one to compare Google with Microsoft (who was surprisingly absent from the Business Week list, and should not have been). But the parallels seem to be getting more and more convincing as time goes on.
Any large successful company is going to attract the best and brightest brains. When that company looks as if it is riding the wave of the future, it’s going to have more applicants than it knows what to do with. Add to that the kind of working conditions and work environment that is the envy of Silicon Valley, and even recruiting well-established talent with strong positions at prestigious companies becomes rather like shooting fish in a barrel.
Hardcore eBayers may know that the online auctioneer recently went live with eBay Express, a website at which users can purchase goods for fixed prices. What they might not know is that eBay needed to create a new search technology, codenamed Magellan, in order to make the site work. Louis Monier, the engineer who developed that technology at eBay, left to join Google last year.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that Amazon also has its own search engine, A9. It’s for searching the web as well as searching Amazon’s website. A9 has its own CEO. Until earlier this year, that person was Udi Manber. He left, and is also working for Google now.
Of course, the most prominent example of “brain drain” is Kai-fu Lee. This former Microsoft vice president worked on the software giant’s expansion into China and certain natural language projects at the company. He now works for Google, but Microsoft didn’t let him go without a fight. It slapped the search engine with an acrimonious lawsuit over the non-disclosure agreement Lee signed while working at Microsoft, which sought to limit the damage caused by Lee “going over to the enemy.” Even now, it’s interesting to note that (at the time of this writing) the top result for “Kai-fu Lee” in Google is Microsoft’s bio page for him, which notes that he left the software giant in July of 2005.
What was perhaps most insulting for Microsoft is that Lee was not the first high-level “brain” it lost to Google, and probably won’t be the last. Indeed, this must be a pretty major adjustment for Microsoft, which has long been used to being “the” company to work for. I rather doubt it’s happy about yielding that distinction to Google.
To those of us who depend on Google to find things on the Internet, the company is a search engine. To those of us who have businesses that we hope web surfers will find on the Internet, Google is an advertising company with a very special relationship to our most important advertising medium. It doesn’t matter whether you’re big or small; you probably owe more of your business to Google than you’re really comfortable with.
The first example of this that comes to mind is KinderStart. I wrote about the childcare-related website’s attempt at a class action lawsuit against Google recently, so I won’t go through all the details here. It’s pretty clear even from a cursory glance at the website in question that KinderStart earned the penalty Google awarded it, and that KinderStart’s lawsuit has no merit. On the other hand, it says something that being penalized in Google’s SERPs could hurt a company’s business so badly it would feel it had no recourse but to sue the search engine.
If you think KinderStart and other small to medium-sized businesses are the only ones that could suffer badly from a “Google death penalty,” think again. The German website for Mercedes Benz received one not too long ago, and the auto maker moved quickly to correct the problem that caused it to be delisted. Many observers said at the time that the move was more of a publicity stunt on Google’s part than anything…but if that’s true, why did Mercedes Benz act so fast?
It’s not just the organic listings that matter, of course. Many companies buy sponsored links. I tend to not pay much attention to them, but other searchers must, or else companies wouldn’t buy them. Take eBay, for instance. I don’t know about you, but if I want to check out what the online auctioneer has to offer, I type the site right into my browser. But it has plenty to offer surfers even when they’re not thinking of finding it at the world’s largest ongoing garage sale; that’s why eBay bids on up to 15 million keywords at the major search engines, including Google. That’s not the most comfortable position for eBay to be in, considering some of Google’s new services threaten to compete with the auctioneer.
The subject of competition brings us to Google’s biggest search rival, Yahoo. eBay recently made a wide-ranging deal with Yahoo, which should reduce its dependence on Google. But even Yahoo has been rumored to be doing business with Google by running ads for some of its own services on Google’s network! If that doesn’t show the strength of Google’s position in the field, I can’t imagine what would.
It reminds me a little of how many companies struggled to get some kind of advertising bundled with Microsoft’s operating system, whether it was an icon on the desktop or a preloaded link on the IE browser. It also reminds me of how, no matter what kind of business you have, if you use computers, you almost have to do business with Microsoft in one way or another. You might simply use Microsoft’s software (because everyone you deal with does and you need to be compatible), or you might build software that has to be able to interface with Microsoft programs (because everyone uses Microsoft programs, so you need to ensure you reach the widest market), or you might need to make sure your hardware is compatible with Microsoft’s operating system (because…well, you get the idea). It’s pretty easy to see the parallel with Google here.
This section almost deserves an article in its own right – though, to be honest, there isn’t an obvious parallel with Microsoft in Google’s conduct here. Perhaps we can see the similarity if we think in terms of Google (or Microsoft) threatening someone’s livelihood by providing something for free that the other person charges for. Microsoft has used its monopoly power deliberately in this way to put competitors out of business.
Google isn’t apparently trying to put anyone out of business by its behavior, but since it’s one of the top websites that everyone goes to when they want answers, it has the same effect. Google has information, which it gives away for free. If it gives away enough information, users don’t see any need to go to the linked source. So rather than gaining from the increased visibility, the site linked to in Google’s SERPs actually loses something.
The argument may seem a little far-fetched, but it’s been used. And it’s no wonder when there’s money on the line. Information may want to be free, but some content is copyrighted – and that means its use is supposed to be under the control of the copyright holders. You may remember when Google changed its logo to honor deceased Spanish artist Joan Miro on April 20 – and had to change it back because the search engine didn’t get permission from Joan Miro’s family to use the images. That’s merely scratching the surface when compared to the other hot water Google is in over copyright issues.
Take book publishers, for example. The Google Books project aims to scan millions of books from five of the world’s largest libraries and make them searchable on Google’s website. That includes copyrighted works. Publishers and authors say that’s copyright infringement, while Google insists that, since it will only show small pieces of copyrighted works, it’s legal under an exemption in the law intended for research. The disagreement has gotten to the point that the Authors Guild filed a class action lawsuit against Google; so have several major publishers. The suit won’t go to trial for a few months yet – and in the meantime, Google is still scanning books.
Website publishers also have grounds to be mad at Google for copyright infringement issues. The owner of Perfect 10, an adult website, sued Google for showing thumbnails of the site’s copyrighted images of women. Judge Howard Matz issued a preliminary injunction against Google, stating that its image search likely infringes copyright law. Fortunately for Perfect 10 and other websites that make their money from paid subscriptions to their content, there is a way to use a robots.txt file to keep Google from indexing certain pages of a website.
That trick won’t work as well if you want people to actually know about the content on your pages, and come visit to get the answer to your question rather than just see what Google turns up. This could become a real problem if Google starts implementing technology being developed by an Australian researcher. Dubbed Orion search, the technology returns more information when a user puts in keywords than you would normally see in the SERPs. It takes advantage of natural connections between knowledge. For example, if you’re looking for information about the American Revolution, your search might also pull up connected information about George Washington.
The point is, someone using Orion search technology might be more likely to find their answer among the results returned – and stay on Google’s website to keep searching, rather than visit the website(s) that actually contain the information. This could be very good for Google, and for businesses whose advertising shows on the search engine’s website. It might not be so good for the sites that turn up in the SERPs, and for businesses who advertise on those sites. A lot of people all but forget that even websites are covered by copyright law – and using the content of a website without its permission is still copyright infringement, and illegal.
So where do these issues leave the rest of us? We’re not quite over the same barrel with Google that we have been with Microsoft; Google still has some strong, viable competitors. But it sure seems to be headed in the same direction. The last thing we need is another big company acting like it owns our business, but it’s going to take some major work by Google’s rivals to slow down this juggernaut.