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Friday, February 3, 2023

Fury Over Google's Self Promotion & Wishing For Perspective

It feels like a bad week to be Google. Honestly, if there’s a tipping point, the freak-out that they’ve become the evil company they said they didn’t want to be seems to have arrived. Goodness knows there’s plenty to be concerned about with Google, as with any large powerful company. The entire Google could become the next evil Microsoft? Yeah, been there, covered that 2002. Maybe the fears are coming true. But then again, you kind of feel sorry for Google in that so many of the accusations, as usual, become unbalanced.

Today the entire Google promoting its own products is hitting new heights. I covered last week on how Google was showing new “tips” pitching its own Blogger product on blog related queries. Firefox cofounder Blake Ross decided earlier this week that this was Google going too far, losing trust. From his post:

The tips are different—and bad for users—because the services they recommend are not the best in their class. If Google wants to make it faster and easier for users to manage events, create a blog or share photos, it could do what it does when you search GOOG: link to the best services. To prevent Google from being the gatekeeper, the company could identify the services algorithmically….

These “tips,” then, can only be a tacit admission of failure: either the company does not believe in its own search technology, or it does not believe its products are good enough to rise to the top organically. I’d guess the latter. And if I were on the Calendar, Blogger or Picasa teams, I wouldn’t be celebrating the news that my employer has lost faith in me.

It just gets worse from there, Google as evil product pusher. For some balance, below is the comment I’ve tried to leave on the post. Perhaps Akismet ate it, as it routinely does to my comments on blog that use that system to catch comment spam [I commented about this here. Can’t see it? Ironically, it was probably eaten]. Perhaps Blake has either not the time or energy or desire to release it. Or perhaps the questions about the self-promotion Firefox are considered bad to air. I highly doubt that’s the case, but accusations over motives and trust seem so easy to make these days. My thoughts:

I disagree these are ads. They don’t look like the actual ads on the page. Some users can’t distinguish between ads and search results, but that will change over time. These also don’t look like regular search results. They are something else, specifically promotions.

I think Google has every right to do promotions on its own search results pages. I respect your concerns and your thought that this somehow weakens Google’s trust factor. I think that’s overblown, however. I don’t mistrust CBS if I tune in and the promote some television show during a commercial, while also taking ads from others. Search results are the main way Google communicates with people. If they have their own products and services, I’d rather see them promote them in this unique way than either tampering with the actual ads or the regular results.

Blake, Google has never to my knowledge actually reordered the regular search results to benefit themselves or anyone else. I have seen other major search engines show signs of this, in contrast.

Google has used actual ads space to promote its own products. That raises issues with advertisers who feel that Google isn’t paying as much (Google denies this) or is unfairly taking up a limited space. Getting Google out of the actual ad space actually has some positives to the search ecosystem.

The wording could be better. Rather than tips, changing to Promo: might change everything. Let’s hope they reconsider that.

The biggest flaw in your argument is the idea that the search results somehow indicate the single best thing, the next best thing and so on. That’s too simplistic. Turning Google’s own, outdated language on them is fun, of course. And it can be done against you, as well. Firefox 2 hasn’t made my “online experience even better” compared to when I was a happy Firefox 1.5 user. It’s crashed at least once per day, the little close tab icons have been moved around slowing me down from old habits, and I’m sure I can pull more of your marketing language to make a product I love into some untrustworthy piece of garbage.

The reality is that rankings can change over time — and in addition, the results you see in the US may not be the same as I see doing the exact same search from outside the US. The rankings can also be skewed for a variety of reasons. And people don’t all agree on them. Google may list Picasa lower than Flickr, but that doesn’t mean Picasa users would agree it’s not best in class. You can have several things all be best in class. And those ranking, as I’ve said, will also move.

Really the thing I most disagree with is the idea the products are failures because Google may promote them. I assume Firefox is a big stinking failure, then? I assume this because of this:

http://www.spreadfirefox.com/?q=affiliates/homepage

Really, if Firefox is so great, then word of mouth ought to drive adoption alone. Instead, you’ve partnered with Google to give people I believe up to $1 per download if they get people going with it. Doesn’t that make you lose faith in your own product, that you have to promote it this way with hard cash?

As for the trust factor, two of the most important search engines on the web — Ask.com and Live.com — are not defaults in your search box. Where’s the trust there? Google gets to be default because they pay Firefox money. Shouldn’t Firefox have undertaken a survey of search quality and given us a default that provides the best results? Shouldn’t those other two be there given they provide very good results as well, sometimes better than Google’s results?

By the way, on this:

“Would Google complain if Microsoft informed users about Live Search when they typed Google.com into Internet Explorer’s address bar? Don’t roll your eyes: it would just be another innocuous tip presented to a user en route to a destination. Google owns one of the Web’s command lines, and Microsoft owns the other.”

Actually, there is something like this already. Go search for Google on Live.com and notice you get a new search box coming up. That’s specifically done to try and detour those away from thinking they need to search on Google and who are trying to find it. But few if any say a word about that. Yahoo does the same, just as Yahoo’s long done tips. And I don’t recall either of those companies suggesting they wanted to get away with this because they weren’t built on trust.

I really dislike other companies getting free passes when Google is held up to higher standards. Blake notes that Microsoft and Yahoo both do self-promotion, but he somehow thinks it’s Google that should be put on fire. I disagree. They all should be put up on fire. Singling out Google distorts the underlying argument. If it’s bad, it’s bad for any of them to do it, not because we love Google so much and are disappointed or because Google should be held to a higher standard.

Typically when Google gets burned, it gets burned because I feel people are too lazy to survey the entire competitive landscape and call for general across the board changes. It’s much easier to point at Google and say Google’s the leader, so I’m focusing on them.

Google News is a good example of this. I honestly want to puke if I have to hear another thing about Google News needing to be more transparent when Yahoo News provides the same or less transparency but no one squawks about that. Want an example of this? Check out the mini-debate I had with Dan Gillmor last year on the issue.

Picking up on the Google “tips” stuff, Smugmug dives in to declare “Google’s gone evil.” Really, because of these tips? I’d rather reserve the evil charge for more serious things like, I dunno, censorship in China.

But come on, let’s dive into Smugmug’s accusations more, which pick up off of Blake:

That’s right. Since Google’s own products aren’t good enough to make the top of the rankings themselves, they’re starting to promote them directly, outside of AdWords, with bright logos and top placement (which no-one else can use).

And I suppose in a search on search engines, Google ought to send you to Dogpile immediately, since that’s currently the first search engine that comes up. Right? I mean Google’s not good enough to rank itself, so the product is a failure.

Then again, if I search for image search engines, Google Images comes up first. No doubt that will open them up to accusations that they’ve manipulated the results for their own evil benefit.

But come on, that’s only one bit of Google as evil. That hardly makes this a bad week.

Well, don’t forget we’ve had the crackdown on sex blogs, which opened Google up to the usual accusations that they aren’t transparent enough, don’t do enough for site owners, are just trying to make money off ads and so on.

Without meaning to dismiss those very valid concerns, Google has done more than any search engine this year to provide better transparency on how they operate, provide more tools to help people with listings, provide more assistance in the area that’s far beyond what I’d ever have expected. But despite all that, it apparently hasn’t registered with the let’s hate Google ’cause they’re going evil crowd.

Maybe Google should run a promo tip about all the stuff Google Webmaster Central has done. Nah, that would be evil.

Hey, don’t forget that Google’s that lying sack of a search engine that pushed out all those fake top terms for 2006. That got a buzz going yesterday, along with the sex blog scandal. Why isn’t Google being more transparent over how the list was created.

They should. And so should Yahoo, Microsoft, Ask and AOL, all of which also offered up lists that were just as meaningless and lacking transparency, as I’ve covered. Nah — let’s yell at Google and hold them to the fire. They’re the leader, or there’s just not time to talk to the others [that was my excuse, in part].

I’m not trying to be an apologist for Google. I’ll hold them to the fire as much as anyone, and I’ll cut loose hard if they’ve gone too far. The concerns people raised are often very valid. Moreover, Google leaves itself open to facing higher standards by marketing language it has failed to update sometimes from when it first launched. Consider:

The heart of our software is PageRank™, a system for ranking web pages developed by our founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Stanford University. And while we have dozens of engineers working to improve every aspect of Google on a daily basis, PageRank continues to provide the basis for all of our web search tools.

PageRank Explained

PageRank relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page’s value. In essence, Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote, by page A, for page B. But, Google looks at more than the sheer volume of votes, or links a page receives; it also analyzes the page that casts the vote. Votes cast by pages that are themselves “important” weigh more heavily and help to make other pages “important.”

The concept of counting votes is way old school, given how votes in the form of links are so bought and sold these days. Google (like other search engines) does a lot of vote discounting and weighting as part of the ranking process.

I ignore this type of language because I know better, I understand how outdated it is, plus I know I can find similar language at other search engines. But then again, Google does hold this stuff out there. And Google itself shoved itself up on the “Don’t be evil” platform that inherently suggests everyone else is evil. As a leader, with a big hunking code of conduct or a philosophy that can be slow to catch up with reality, that’s a big long neck willingly stuck out there waiting to be chopped off.

One of my wishes earlier this year was for Google to get more realistic in this department:

Fix the philosophy. I’ve written before about how your philosophy page has a big disconnect with reality. It feels even further disconnected these days. You’re doing 100 different things rather than “one thing really, really well.” As for “you can make money without doing evil,” you know that’s not so when you yourselves created an evil scale to decide just how bad bowing to Chinese censorship would be for you. Give us a realistic philosophy, one that doesn’t give you so far to fall from lofty heights. We’ll like you more for it, rather than the excuses and spin when you can’t do what you say you should do.

I’ll still hope for that. I suppose it’s sad. I liked the noble idea that Google wanted to be a different company, a kinder, gentler company. In some ways they are. But in many other ways, they’re just another big company that’s going to do all the things big companies do to protect their interests. I still hope that Google understands the best way to do this is to protect the interest of their users.

I have nothing but respect for those who worry that Google might be changing for the worst and are, like Blake, speaking out in hopes of influencing that. But I still always wish for greater perspective, for people to hold an industry accountable and for more credit to be paid when particular companies get it right. We talk plenty about the failures. The success deserve more attention, as well.


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