Once in a while I hear the dreaded question no small business owner would want to hear asked about their own business: Is Google getting greedy? Though a few individuals may adopt Gordon Gekko’s oft-misquoted creed “Greed is good” (which I have again misquoted here), most enterprises would prefer to be perceived as less greedy and more needy. Companies just starting out are in need of customers (or users), and are often viewed in a more favorable light than successful existing companies perhaps because of a natural tendency for people to root for the underdog. Google was once a fledgling startup, back in the late ’90s, and when it first challenged the existing search engine services, it was cheered on much like the character Rocky Balboa in Sylvester Stallone’s films about the struggling boxer from the Bronx.
Companies tend to grow, and if they’re as successful as Google has been, they begin to grow far outside the outlines of their initial business proposal. Would anyone in the ’90s have guessed that Google in 2012 would be challenging Microsoft’s domination of the portable operating system market? Cloud computing was just a speck in entrepreneurs’ eyes back then. Do you think Google’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, would have really expected to be in a position to challenge Apple’s hardware market in 2012? As visionary as Brin and Page may have been, would even they have fantasized that Google’s offerings would be so widespread in a not-so-distant future? The only place Google doesn’t seem to be these days is in our kitchen sink. (And don’t count that out! Can you say smart sinks? Imagine asking your drain about the most effective way to brush your teeth.)
Google has introduced its answer to just about every popular Internet technology it can, providing us with alternative operating systems, alternative social networking platforms, and alternative productivity applications. Now Google intends to alter the bread and butter of its operation: its search. Has Google gone too far? Is Google greedy?
Today’s Wall Street Journal reported that Google would be introducing some major changes to its search results, changes that “could give Google more ways to serve up advertisements.” At first glance that seems like a perfectly reasonable business move; it is the company’s prerogative to alter its product in any way that it wishes — particularly as long as the manner in which it does so doesn’t significantly harm others. Though some may disagree about what “harm” encompasses, many have agreed that Google is in no small measure profiting on the labor of others, since the bulk of its revenue comes from advertisements surrounding or attached to content produced by others. Each and every search performed using a Google search product (Google Search, YouTube, Google Books) turns up very little content that Google itself produces on its own (so little that the content really doesn’t need to be mentioned); the overwhelming majority of the content was produced by Internet users like you and me.
One reason we content producers generally allow Google to make a buck off our work is because we ourselves benefit from the fact that our content is discovered through the use of Google’s search products. But is there a point where Google overstretches the invisible boundaries of its reach? When Google begins not only providing lists of links to our content but begins providing much of the content itself within its products — to the point that Internet users need not leave whatever Google application they’re using to access said content — should we expect to be able to withdraw our content from Google’s listings so that it does not profit from our work? This is a question that many content producers have been asking, and now that Google intends to broaden the amount of information presented on a search results page, people are beginning to fear that Google may be taking more than it offers.
Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan makes the case that the changes the Wall Street Journal reports as significant enough to bill a “makeover” aren’t all that major: “Honestly, it sounds like Google is just going to ramp up showing results that come from its Google Squared technology, as well as what’s been built since its Freebase / Metaweb acquisition.” Mr. Sullivan also insinuates that Google’s PR department may be over-amplifying the changes to its search product in order to offset some of the criticism it has received due to another addition the company recently made to Google Search, the personalization feature Search Plus Your World. Many people have been concerned about their privacy being disregarded due to such additions. I don’t entirely disagree with Mr. Sullivan’s view that Google may be simply trying to polish up its image — but has Google gotten so big that it’s now fully engaging in press mechanisms that we’re more likely to see employed by companies such as British Petroleum than by a company that has been credited with sporting the motto “Don’t be evil?” Has Google joined the ranks of Big Oil and banks, suppressing public criticism by tossing out shiny coins to distract us from the parts of its enterprise that we don’t like?
Some of you will tell me, Dude, where have you been? Google has been greedy for years. That may be true — but this greedy? Is it time to begin revolting? Is it time to — dare I say it — begin using Bing?
I’m not about to begin switching to another search engine, but I’m willing to use Bing more often than I have in the past. Google, at this point in time, still provides the best search results for me. That said, if Google begins serving up more content than I perceive it should be serving up — that is, if it continues the trend of usurping the content of others without providing more value to the content producers than simply a link to their respective properties — then I will make an effort to begin looking toward other search tools. Though we may not have heard more than a weak grumbling from content producers up to this point, we may find the grumbling turn into a menacing roar by the time Google’s new “features” roll out to the public… and I’m just hoping there’s an underdog out there working on a new way to discover what the world has to offer. We can’t expect Google to always provide us with answers.