Don’t Be Evil

June 18, 2008 at 1:58 am Leave a comment

John Batelle’s “The Search: How Google and its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture” describes how Google’s unofficial motto is “Don’t Be Evil.” Before I read this book I would have unequivocally said that Google was abiding by its motto. But The Search made me think a little harder about the capacity for a company with so much influence and reach to be evil, perhaps without even knowing it.

Batelle recounted the story of Neil Moncreif, a small business owner based in Georgia who sells big shoes – size thirteens and over. It’s hard for a niche business like Moncreif’s to remain viable in any one geographic location. People with big feet are spread throughout the world and don’t cluster in Georgia, or any other one location for that matter. (See Life in the Long Tail for more on niche markets.) So Moncreif launched www.2bigfeet.com and did a pretty brisk business without ever having to place an ad. Until November 14, 2003, that is, when Google tweaked its search result algorithms, which dropped www.2bigfeet.com from the first result on the search “big feet” to below the hundredth result. The economic – and, ultimately, psychological – impact on Moncreif and his family was huge.

So while Google may have had noble intentions when it tweaked its algorithms, it broke it’s motto about not being evil when it came to a small business owner who sells big shoes.

I wonder if it is even possible to be a company as large and powerful as Google and not be inadvertantly evil every now and again? Moreover, is it sometimes necessary to do some evil for the greater good? The Search described how Google bent to the Chinese government’s wishes and eliminated controversial links from its results (perhaps evil?) so that it could provide the Chinese people with its valuable service (perhaps a greater good?).

So should we all be afraid of Google? I think Moncreif’s experience shows that yes, we should be afraid of Google if we depend upon it too much. And I think more and more people are starting to feel the same way. A recent article in The Independent, “Discontent flares over Google’s ‘dominance’” describes critics’ concerns that Google is the “overwhelmingly dominant force on the internet.” A recent Washington Post article, “Will 2008 Be Google’s End of Innocence” starts, “2008 may be the year that Google’s innocence ends, as media and governments start to cast a less forgiving eye at the behavior of the company that controls 60% of the search market and perhaps as much as half of all online advertising revenue.”

With prominence and power come a lot of scrutiny. That, above all else, might be why I’m not yet losing sleep over Google’s dominance.

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