Google Isn't Big and Keyser Soze Didn't Exist

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2009-06-29 Print this article Print

There's nothing a like a good old fashioned media cat-and-mouse game.

I'm talking about the kind where a public relations executive tries to convince a reporter of something that stretches the limit of our imagination.

The reporter reports the story, but adds nuances to let us know that he is letting his subject spread a thick layer of B.S. By the end of the piece, we realize the reporter, though providing a forum or pulpit for the subject to espouse his views, has subtly undermined his subject's message.

This is how The New York Times reporter Miguel Helft's story "Google Makes a Case That It Isn't So Big" comes across. It's the type of story bound to show up during a holiday week when eyeballs threaten to wander elsewhere and media editors old school and new pound the table for more page views.

The central victim subject for his piece is Google Senior Competition Counsel Dana Wagner, who "faces the Sisyphean task of convincing the world that his employer is not unassailable." Helft adds:

"Competition is a click away," Mr. Wagner says. It's part of a stump speech he has given in Silicon Valley, New York and Washington for the last few months to reporters, legal scholars, Congressional staff members, industry groups and anybody else who might influence public opinion about Google. "We are in an industry that is subject to disruption and we can't take anything for granted," he adds.

Competition may be a click away, but as we learned last week from this Catalyst Group experiment, the competition isn't even enough to capsize the comfort Google has fostered among its users.

So I contend that while competition is a click away, Google's search is the sofa to Microsoft's folding chair, Bing. Fellow Google Watcher Stephen Arnold noted:

Search and other computer-centric activities are a combination of mental habits and motor skills. As a result, switching is not the easy-as-pie action that most observers assert. I have said in many venues "habits are like a soft bed. Easy to get into and hard to get out of."

Helft goes on to note Google's opponents in the Justice Department, which quashed the Google-Yahoo deal for fear of Google's growing influence (65 percent of world's search share at present comScore count), and is looking at Google's hiring practices. He then notes:

But the investigations and carping from competitors and critics have Google fighting to dispel the notion that it has a lock on its market, even as it increases its share of search and online advertising. Eyes are rolling, especially in reaction to the idea that Google is a relatively small player in a giant market.

That Helft immediately followed the notion that Google is claiming it doesn't have a lock on its market even as its boosts its own search and ad share with "eyes are rolling," is key. It's not a stretch to conclude that Helft's own eyes were rolling. The inclusion of the line after Google's oft-repeated claim of innocence is the giveaway.

Helft also characterizes Wagner as a "boyish, 33-year-old Mr. Wagner, a former antitrust lawyer at the Justice Department who drops words like "goofy" and "wacky" with an aw-shucks grin into discussions of complex legal and economic issues."

Anyone else read that as anything but Helft's B.S. meter going off? He doesn't need to spell it out for us. That a lawyer would make light of "complex legal and economic issues" implies an act, a soft sell to downplay the weight of what's at stake: the nut of online advertising. Helft sees through it.

Helft chronicles more details about how Google doesn't trap anyone into using its search engine, and how "Wagner's case is the argument that Google is a relatively small player in a vast market where its rivals are not just other search engines or even other Websites." If you've heard the arguments, you get the idea.

Google's situation recalls to my mind one of the lines from "The Usual Suspects," that 1995 crime thriller that gave us Keyser Soze as the punchline for so many ham-handed party jokes.

Ultimately, Google trying to convince the world of naysayers and pundits that it doesn't have a monopoly on search is like the devil's greatest trick: Pretending he doesn't exist.

That worked out well for Keyser Soze. How will it work out for Google?

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