Monday, January 11, 2010

How Not to be Evil

"Don't be evil." Words to live by, especially if you're a giant corporation like Google, which has more potential to do evil than perhaps any other organization in history. They have become pervasive over the past decade - at the moment, I am blogging on a Google service, with another one (GMail) open in another tab; my browser (like most browsers today) has a Google search box built right in at the top, and if I wanted to I could switch to Chrome, a Google-branded browser, in a few seconds. And that's just what I see right now in front of me. They're also pervasive in the search and advertising spaces - the vast majority of Internet users use Google first and foremost for search, and I believe the majority of ads shown on the web are from Google as well.

Once upon a time, Google made a reasonable effort not to abuse their position of influence too much. Sure, they show you ads when you search, but that's understood to be an implicit transaction - the ads pay for the search service. Sure, GMail reads your email to target ads at you, but users understood that that was the whole reason Google was running a mail service in the first place when they chose to use GMail. Whenever Google did something like that, there was a reasonable enough explanation. Notably, they wouldn't give themselves free advertising, and abuse their position as the owner of this massive ad network.

Recently, though, that's changed. It may have started with Chrome, it may have started earlier - I don't really know - but these days Google advertises their own stuff on the search page. When Chrome was first released, there were big ads on the Google home page urging you to install Chrome if you hadn't already. This has a tremendous effect on the market - just recently, Chrome overtook both Safari and Opera, which have been around for far longer. It's now the third most-used browser, behind only Firefox and Internet Explorer. It turns out that, in a shocking turn of events, if Google tells everybody that uses Google to install something, a lot of them will do it.

Today, I'm looking at an ad for the Nexus One, the long-awaited Googlephone, or "gPhone" to those that have a lingering iPhone fixation. It's a significant device, in that it's Google's attempt to tweak the collective nose of the cell phone industry in the US, and introduce people to the benefits of buying unlocked phones. That's still no excuse for giving it ad space - for free - that any company in the world would sell their souls for. Used to be that the most change you would see on the Google homepage was an artistic logo for special occasions, but apparently, that's changed.

Google is usually a benevolent corporate overlord, as corporate overlords go, but this sort of advertising raises all kinds of ethical questions. They are in a unique position as a company which controls online advertising, and also sells many other services, and they should realize that they've crossed some sort of line.

1 comment:

Kiriska said...

This has been an issue ever since Google ventured outside of just search engines, though to be honest, I've really not paid much attention since I swapped over to Google's "personalized" homepage with all my widgets and none of the ads. I do think that Google's taking advantage of its own power by advertising its own products in other sectors, but at the same time, is this kind of behavior really "evil"? It's logical. It's like any large media conglomerate advertising one of its projects inside another one of its projects. Makes sense.

Maybe we took for granted Google's innocent start-up behavior, but I think it's unreasonable to expect such behavior to last forever. Google's always been expanding, now perhaps more obvious than ever, but it's always been expanding. Anyway, I can definitely still admire many of their efforts -- pulling out of China, for instance.