Jeff Jarvis has a fine piece on BuzzMachine that deals with the bigotry toward Google.
As someone who spends 75 percent of his professional time covering Google, I know exactly what he is talking about, and I’ve thought a lot about this issue. I’d love to divine the root causes, but I can only speculate on this because it is a question of sentiment more than hard evidence. So here goes nothing.
First, Jarvis notes that he finds a lot of Google discrimination from the French, calling it “some form of national insanity.” I wouldn’t know about that.
But I have been told that people in Europe are particularly distrustful of Google because, yes, they feel the company has become such a massive power online. Many analysts have told me that Germany especially fears Google’s long online tendrils and the search giant regularly threatens their privacy by collecting data from searches.
When you look past the wonderful Googley searches, Gmail and other fine, free Web services, Google does cultivate a Borg-like image when you think about what goes into Googleyness. The company has more than one million servers, sitting in data centers all over the world.
If one were to bow to the dramatic, one might say Google conjures an image of science fiction films such as “War of the Worlds” or “Signs.” The servers are like alien ships covering all of humanity, though instead of harvesting us for food sources, they are harvesting our search data for better advertising opportunities.
Jarvis notes: “Do some people complain about Google? Yes, it is often the same people who complain about the internet and about change and technology and simply use Google as their target simply because it is so big and so innovative.”
He’s right. People do fear Google because of this “big” perception, and this concern points to Google’s perception as a monopolist in search. Jarvis then notes:
“Google is not a monopoly. It is a competitive company and it took advertising dollars for one simple reason: because advertisers found a better deal there – buying performance, not scarcity, with Google sharing their risk – than they ever found in our old media. It is media companies’ fault that they lost their customers after cheating them for too many years.“
I’d again have to agree with that part about how Google got so big and mighty, though saying Google isn’t a monopolist is splitting hairs. It is a monopolist in the sense that people perceive it as one because it has gotten so large. Dan Tunkelang wrote in The Noisy Channel:
“While Google may not have engaged in any illegal or unethical practices to get there, it now holds a position as the primary gatekeeper to the internet for a substantial majority of Americans, as well as much of the western world.“
Sure, no one is locked into Google technically, but the company has been so wonderful about lulling people into a comfort zone that they won’t leave. Some people fear changing, even to Microsoft’s wonderful Bing experience. Other people have five years’ worth of Gmail data and won’t leave because of that migration chore.
Google is more of a paper monopolist. It commands 65 to 70 percent of the world’s searches, and is the search engine of choice even in Europe, where it supposedly encounters it greatest opposition.
However, it is important to note that it has not been convicted by any court, nor has it even been put on trial for being a monopolist. So where does the fear come from? Ironically, Google has Internet rival Microsoft to thank for that. With the antitrust trial one decade ago, Microsoft instilled a natural knee-jerk fear of high-tech companies getting too big for their britches.
Moreover, Google’s mastery in search leads to other questions; it dredges up privacy concerns.
The argument goes something like this: Google has gotten so big and has so collected so much data on consumers through behavioral advertising and other tactics that it has became a virtual warehouse of user data. This threatens user privacy, they say. Well, yes, I suppose in the same way we fear rain when we look outside and see stormy clouds.
The fact is, Google hasn’t infringed privacy rights with its data store, or even coughed it up to the detriment of consumers. It has not ripped our trust apart, but privacy advocates argue that it threatens to nonetheless.
In my personal experience covering Google, I have been accused of being both a Google lover and an anti-Google Microsoft lover. How’s that for a bipolar perception? I wrote a piece last month about how Bing might topple Google from its search perch and was bathed in hate from Google lovers.
I have noticed my peers become more critical of Google. There is a feeling that they are waiting for Google to screw up, and then they will pounce. It’s subtle, but it’s there. TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington does a piece every so often accusing Google of taking away the free edition of Google Apps.
You can feel that he is almost willing this to happen in his coverage so that he can wag his finger and say, “I told you so, and Google is evil.” Then he will lead a movement to get people to leave Google, much like his mini-revolt versus the Apple iPhone because he got number portability of Google Voice. But we’re not here to discuss payola.
Another sign of the Google bigotry comes from coverage of Gmail outages. Journalists pounce on these and cover them ad nauseum, sometimes with malicious glee. I cover them, though I tell anyone who cares I hate covering any sort of Internet outage. It’s tough. The public has a right to know what happened to their e-mail content, but it’s also no fun pointing out human failings, which most of these outages are.
A more subtle point on the bigotry. Google Apps PR told me recently that all anyone wants to do is talk about what Google Apps doesn’t have compared with Microsoft Office rather than the reverse; Google Apps has things Office doesn’t.
So yes, Google bigotry is widespread and it is growing. The Google Book Search settlement may play a big role in how this perception of Google evolves going forward. Parties in Europe spoke out against it today.
My feeling is the settlement will be approved when the judge looks at it Oct. 7. Then we will hear more outcries of discontent from the people who fear Google’s growing power online.