Why Hath Google Forsaken Us? A Meditation.

(image) Here’s a short overview of Google’s past few months: It’s angered policymakers and pundits with a sweeping change to its privacy settings. It’s taken a beating for favoring its own properties in its core search results. It’s been caught with its hands in Apple’s cookie jar, and despite the fact Facebook and others previously condoned the practice, it was savaged for doing so. It’s continuing to fight an expensive and uncertain patent war. And its blinkered focus on beating Facebook – a company which, at its core, couldn’t be more different philosophically – has caused many to wonder….What on earth has happened to the Google we once knew?

Has it abandoned its principles of supporting the open web, data liberation, and doing no evil? Is Google turning into … another walled garden?

Well, those are questions I’ve been pondering for a while now, and I think I have an answer, or at least, some reasonable speculation as to an answer.

Here’s the short version of the answer: Google is playing for the long term, but it feels it has no choice but to make these moves now. It’s in a “rip off the band aid” phase of the game.

The longer version goes something like this: Google had identified a central and existential threat to its future, and that threat is….us. Or rather, the fact that Google doesn’t have a direct relationship with us, in the way Apple or Facebook does.

Think about it. When you use Facebook, you’re always logged in, and your identity and relationships – to others, to content, to apps and services – are assets Facebook can use to customize your experience (oh, and your ads). You then take that identity and those relationships, and you promiscuously spread them around the web, logging into any number of services through Facebook’s Open Graph, giving Facebook an even deeper sense of who you are, what you consume, and what you “like.” You happily give Facebook terabytes of structured data about yourself, content with the implicit tradeoff that Facebook is going to give you a social service that makes your life better.

And anytime Facebook wants to change how it might use all that data about you, in any way, across any service it has within the Facebook ecosystem, all it has to do is change one privacy policy, tell you about it, and that’s that.

Oh, and did you know that Facebook changes the code underlying its services on a daily, if not hourly basis? Have you ever asked Facebook to get your approval for those changes, or for details on how they might effect you, or whether you can go back to using an earlier version of Facebook? Of course not. And when was the last time you read Facebook’s privacy policy? OK, if you read Searchblog, you probably have read it, at least once. Most folks? Nah. We trust Facebook to not do stupid things, if it does, we’ll just leave. Right?

Now think about Apple. For those of us who use its iPhone, iPad, iPod, and/or iTunes and other products, Apple has a complete picture of both our identity, and our relationship to Apple services (like iTunes, iCloud, iPhoto, MobileMe, etc.) as well as to the huge universe of apps on its devices. It also has a few hundred million of our credit card numbers, something Facebook can only dream of having (don’t worry, Facebook is working on that).

Oh, and when Apple wants to push a new version of iOS, its operating system, it simply does it. You might take the time to read the documentation as to what changed since the last operating system, but I doubt it. Like most of us, you just accept the update, because you don’t want your phone to stop working. Right?

Ditto for Apple’s terms of service and privacy policies. Have you ever read them? Really? Then you’re in a very small minority. Most of us don’t bother, because we trust Apple – like with Facebook, we figure if they do something that really pisses us off, we’ll drop them for an alternative. Right?

Finally, let’s think about our relationship with Google, circa mid 2011, before Google+ was introduced. For most of us, Google meant search, and the majority of us used search anonymously – we weren’t logged in. Google has been working on getting us to “personalize” search by logging in for years, but that only solved part of its problem. Hundreds of millions of us also used other Google products – Picasa for photos, YouTube for culture fixes, Gmail for communication, Blogger for expression, Maps, Docs, and lord knows what else for productivity. Not to mention, hundreds of millions more of us started using Chrome and Android.

Now, before Google+, every single one of those services had its own set of policies, its own approach to identity management, and its own vast data silos. It was one big hot holy mess, from Google’s point of view. As customers, we saw Google as one brand, but the truth is, we used its various services as if each came from a different company.

And that meant Google couldn’t compete with Apple or Facebook when it came to any number of crucial factors. It had no single point of reference for communicating with its customers. It had no way to link its services and provide  consistent updates, policy changes, or shared uses (would you like to integrate your Picasa photos into your Google search results? Sorry bud, I don’t know who you are, you’re out of luck!).

And this created one Very Big Problem for Larry Page & Co: Google couldn’t be elegant, or design driven, or easy to use. And we consumers have proven that we really, really want those things in our web services. That’s why Apple is winning. It’s why Facebook is winning. And it’s why Google was desperately afraid that it was about to lose.

So Google held its nose, built Google+ as its connective tissue, and plunged into a world of pain. It’s not over yet, but the game is afoot. Google is in the process of becoming Apple- and Facebook-like in its relationship to us.

Does that mean that Google will become Apple and Facebook? Time will tell, but my suspicion is no. And as much as I’d like to say the reason is high-minded, I think it’s more about competitive positioning. The people I know at Google really believe in the open web. They believe in data portability. And they believe in supporting an ecosystem that isn’t entirely under Google’s control. It’s that open-web ecosystem that created Google (and Facebook, and Apple, for that matter). And I think Google sees an end game – once it has direct, meaningful relationships with its customers, it believes it will be seen as the most open and accommodative player amongst the Internet Big Five. It will compete on policy and data use, and it believes it will win on those points. It will provide alternatives to Facebook and Apple, and it believes those alternatives will prove more consumer friendly over time.

At least, I hope that’s what Google believes….for now, there’s much work to be done. The integration of its privacy policy is step one. The next step is to provide a better privacy dashboard than Facebook currently does (Facebook, to its credit, has come a long, long way here. Apple? Not so much. I can’t find a dashboard for privacy settings anywhere). Then, Google must take another plunge, and allow us to use our data any way we want, both inside and outside of Google’s services. The more open Google proves to be over time, the more customers it will win in the long term. Oh, and then it has to figure out how to link Android to all of this (good luck with that one…).

Apple and Facebook have already shown themselves to have a philosophy of domain-specificity: everything works great, as long as you’re within their controlled domains. Building an open web alternative to that approach is messy, it’s painful, and it sometimes appears to contradict Google’s core principles. But I believe, in the end, it’s what Google is trying to do.

I shudder to think of an opposite outcome – where Google begins to act just like its main competitors. It could happen – and many of you have given up on the company doing anything but just that. But I think the world needs an alternative, and there are precious few companies with the heft and motivation to create one. In fact, there’s really just one…at least, for now.

65 thoughts on “Why Hath Google Forsaken Us? A Meditation.”

    1. What’s interesting about Google Play compared to iTunes is that it (gasp) actually exists as a website – a place where, unlike iTunes, you can browse apps without a direct route to installation.

      That to me is not an insignificant difference.  There’s perhaps no bigger repudiation of the web than placing your products behind a piece of piece of software.  Yes, there are iTunes “preview” pages available, but if you search the Apple website itself for apps it directs you to iTunes.  So ironically the best way of finding an app on iTunes is to use Google.

      1. Yeah. That used to be true of how to find someone on Twitter, remember? In fact, it kind of still is…

      2. Aaron, that is partly a design choice, in a overpopulated ecosystem, don’t you think?

        It is just more elegant to point someone @ iTunes v. pogo sticking around, according to the Apple design philosophy, no?

      3. I don’t think so James.  That is, what you describe may be a user interaction choice, but it is not related to design.  So, amending what you said, I’d say it’s consistent with the Apple user interaction philosophy:  all Apple all the time. 😉

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post John.  In the recent spate of tirades directed against Google, people seemed to have to entirely forgotten that Facebook and Apple are walled gardens – often at the same time they extol the relative virtues of these rivals.

    Like you I don’t believe that Google will ultimately become a Facebook or an Apple.  To do so (as you allude to) would be to desert the open information framework which – because those rivals are walled gardens – represents Google’s biggest competitive advantage.

    Just to follow up on one example you cite, just at the Data Liberation Front, “an engineering team at Google whose singular goal is to make it easier for users to move their data in and out of Google products.”  Most days it seems to me that Apple’s singular goal, in particular, is to make it more difficult to do anything with your Apple data outside of iTunes.  Anyway, a stark comparison easily made.

    1. This is an area I’ll be watching closely …. and honestly, I think Google’s policy of not letting folks export to Facebook, because Facebook doesn’t allow reciprocity, is probably the wrong policy.

  2. Well … I’m not on Facebook. I was there about a year and left almost two years ago. I’ve never owned an Apple product and it’s only now that I’m considering switching from Android to an iPhone.

    I don’t think there’s any danger of Google becoming Apple or Facebook. But there is a *profound* danger of them becoming Microsoft in the B2B world or Yahoo in B2C. There’s only so much market for IT world-wide and the giants can only grow at the expense of other giants. Think about that for a bit.

  3. I like Google and have also been a bit unsettled by the recent spate of bad coverage. But this article puts it in perspective. I think perhaps I’ve just been influenced by the competition’s FUD machine going into overdrive.

    But I am watching Google closely… if they mess up and go “bad” I’m not sure what I’m going to do… I’m sure I’ll survice offline.

  4. John, you are 1000% correct on the why Google should stay where it is. I think there is a sound argument that they should be doing no social style products.

  5. Great post, John, insightfully put!

    I believe there’s a more controversial reason as to why Google have drawn as much flack for their policy changes: Microsoft (MS).  It’s my contention that Google’s drawn an unprecedented amount of negative press from their policy changes.  As your article suggests: fewer other competitors are quite as honest, open and clear and yet get almost no negative press.  I put this difference down to Microsoft’s FUD campaign work executed through ICOMP (and other companies that are funded by Microsoft).  As reported (http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2012/03/microsoft-v-google), ICOMP are funded by MS and actively campaign against Google by holding events such as the one that is described in the Economist article as well as preparing similarly toned articles for the general media to use at their liberty.   Let’s face it, it’s easier for some web publications to take a salacious article and reuse to raise their own visibility.  So one company can drive the news whilst others happily tag along.  Google tend to, as far as I’m aware, keep their head below the parapet and don’t engage in similar tactics.  As a result MS are able to create a significant and uncontested stir, which gives them even more ability to make a noise about it.  The average consumer doesn’t necessarily connect the dots and as such it’s quite possible that Google may lose the public perception war/battle, which doesn’t help their ability to gain g+ traction.  It is rather sad that MS are able to so easily cast a slur on Google who seem to leave the public perception battle to the general public; perhaps a little niaive in such a competitive environment and may well be their undoing as was the case with betamax vs. vhs i.e. the better format lost the battle!  I believe this because MS may have many sour grapes about things such as Google’s primary source of revenue (web advertising etc.), in which MS are not able to make any significant impact, and Google Apps which poses a reasonably good treat of eroding MS’ Office margin.

    1. Interesting. I was thinking that the other company that has a chance of executing a playbook like Google is Microsoft….

  6. I can’t help feeling that the ulterior motive behind Google+ is to harness any personal info we declare so it can be integrated with our searches and other online activity so that we can be targeted even more specifically by online advertising orchestrated through Google. 

  7. John, you helped me perceive an inherent tension:
    Facebook and Apple are the two companies that have the strongest in-depth knowledge about their “participants” (formerly known as customers). But Facebook and Apple also have the most walled-off sections of the internet, the part of the web not easily searched, not easily linked by outsiders, not so open.Google on the other hand, represents the dream of the wide open web. To some it represents the best of what a neutral, interoperable, level society looks like (so far). Few walls, low barriers, little bias (relatively), and great flexibility to maximize participation. But, as you noted, it doesn’t know its participants as well as the other two with their walled gardens.The question I want to ask is: are those two vectors linked? Is it necessary to create barriers in the savannas of the internet in order to deeply know (and protect!) and engage with participants? Does G+ mean not only Google becoming intimate with us, but also Google having to start building fences? Is there an inherent connection between intimacy and walls? Or is this just a temporary coincidence?

    1. I don’t think so, Kevin. I think that may be true only if the onus of protection/data curation/privacy is on the company, rather than the individual. If the platform is US, then the barriers are our own. I think that’s the shift that is coming.

      1. John, there’s an open meditation! Google hath forsaken Us, taking up the Apple/Facebook medication.
        Symptoms are bad privacy policy implementations, tighter data integrations, and account restrictions.
        Swallowing the pill with Motorola favors development of proprietary mobile and entertainment platforms with Chrome OS. Android probably won’t hold up as an open antidote.

  8. I love Google, I use alot of its products. I especially love my Galaxy Nexus, and Google Voice. So, I want Google to continue its commitment to the open web. I’m on Facebook, but it’s just not as useful as Google for me. I don’t have anything from Apple, so Apple’s irrelevant to me.

  9. Spot on. Google’s faux pas (if you will) up until now, has been that it always favoured the “carrot”. That is, give consumers enough value for them to give up something in return. They treated us on par. Fairly?

    For instance, I always paused my Web History until Google gave me enough reasons to give in. 

    Apple & Facebook have always dealt with is from a position of strength (the take-it-or-leave-it proposition). The “stick”

    The cultural shift here (in response to the success of Facebook & Apple, as you identify) is Google trying to “assert” itself. This is bringing all the righteous-in-their-mind-critics out of the woodwork.

  10. Look for google to become a single page app shortly, across all their properties.

    Fast, integrated with the same code base across all devices. It will help google move faster than anyone else in the industry.

    Try clicking across the top bar on google to see what I mean. It certainly feels like a single app.

  11. Personalized or ‘curated’ search is definitely a bad idea. I want open, unbiased search that is untainted by my supposed (dumb) preferences – search that has been vetted by the market place or the public square.  Nevertheless, I am a fan of personalized ads. I rarely if ever click on them, but I’d rather be bothered with something that speaks to my interests than otherwise. So if the GOOG is  smart, they’d focus on personalized ads and leave search open… they could have it both ways – build controlled advertising (social) domains, but stick to their core principles of an open searchable web , i.e., cultivate an “open garden”.

    1. Interesting. I like the idea of a “real” social search as well – one that all of us share in.

  12. Interesting thoughts.  I think the challenge is that you have set yourself as the explainer from Google’s perspective.  The trouble is that the reaction isn’t to their perspective but to the user’s perspective whatever Google’s perspective is.  Its as though you’ve crossed the line from the Marissa Mayer point at the beginning of “In the Plex” that revenues will follow user focus to that revenues are paramount and if the user doesn’t like it well they’ll eventually see that what is in our interests is also in their interest.  That’s a big problem, whatever the details from inside the Plex.

    Just to take one example, the way Google Reader had some of its various features ripped asunder didn’t look like it was an effort to serve the user.  Its one thing to say they don’t have the resources to devote to the product.  Quite another to remove some features that serve the user but may get in the way of other things that serve the company.  

    Facebook seeks to keep the user, increase the connections (and build up their network effects), so that the exit barrier (or entry barrier for a competitor) will just be too high.  Apple seeks to wow their customers based on what they think will delight them (without worrying too much about what the individual customers will be unhappy about).  Google was supposedly the one that put the customers interests first.  I don’t think one can credibly argue that one is doing things that serve the interests of the company and don’t look like they serve the customer to serve the customer in the long-run.  Furthermore, it seems that a better question is, if they need to compete, is there a way for them to get to the place you are suggesting they need to get to without looking like they are no longer so user-driven.  Or to put it another way, how things look may matter much more than the explanation for why they are doing what they are doing.  Thanks.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I’d wager Google would argue, if the company had a hankering to pick up the argument (any Googlers out there?), that the unification of the experience is going to be better for customers, not worse. I’ve heard many complaints about what happened to Reader, though I don’t use the product. I do have a ton of “readers” from Google Reader, but they are not a very engaged bunch, from what I can tell. It’s funny how RSS has become a dead subject, but some of the hottest new companies are essentially RSS with a better interface and algos – Flipboard, New.me, Paper.li etc.

      1. “As we head into 2012, we’ve been sticking to some old resolutions—the
        need to focus on building amazing products that millions of people love
        to use every day.” http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2012/01/renewing-old-resolutions-for-new-year.html

        That pretty much nails it, don’t you think? So look for a merge of Android and ChromeOS in Key Lime Pie, perhaps? I doubt that there are millions of people who love to use ChromeOS ChromeBooks. 😉

        I’ve got one of those “Google Apps for Business” accounts – they’re free for up to 10 users, I think, and I’ll never have a team big enough to go beyond that. Really, that’s where I think Google is headed, though.

      2. It may be better for the customer.  Yet if what is driving these changes (which is the way it looks) is not serving the customer first but serving Google first then one is dealing with a different Google.  This is the passage I was referring to and I found it striking, particularly for a company with Google’s large scale success.
        “I began to get an insider’s sense of Google’s product processes—and how serving its users was akin to a crusade. An interesting moment occurred in Bangalore when Mayer was taking questions from local engineers after presenting an overview of upcoming products. One of them asked, ‘We’ve heard the road map for products, what’s the road map for revenues?’ She almost bit his head off. ‘That’s not the way to think,’ she said. ‘We are focused on our users. If we make them happy, we will have revenues.'”– Levy, Steven (2011-04-12). In The Plex (p. 5)

        The latest moves look like they are focused on serving Google’s interests first which may or may not serve their customers.  That’s a change, and a significant one (and yes around the edges they’ve don’t the same, but there are always edges, this appears different).  And more than anything it’s a change in corporate mindset which leads to all sorts of other approaches down the line.  
        Interesting thoughts on Google Reader and participation.  I don’t know how to participate via Google Reader.  Thanks.

      3. ‘We’ve heard the road map for products, what’s the road map for revenues?’ She almost bit his head off. ‘That’s not the way to think,’ she said. ‘We are focused on our users. If we make them happy, we will have revenues.'”– Levy, Steven (2011-04-12). In The Plex (p. 5)
        Bizarre. That sounds like something Steve Jobs might have said back in the 80’s. Then he learned his lesson. 

        What makes Google great, no doubt, is the developers and great people they have working there. But what makes Google BIG is their ingenious AdSense platform. To not think about Revenues and pretend like business is a ‘small part’ of Google is ridiculous. There are plenty of search engines. AdWords/AdSense was the best idea Google ever had about monetizing them.

      4. I’m not sure where you got the idea that Mayer was pretending like business is a small part of Google.  Mayer was one of the central early players that helped them get to where they are now.  The point was not to not care about revenues but to focus on users and the revenues would come from serving the users. The quote, from Levy’s book, which I think is considered a rather accurate account of the thinking inside the company (and perhaps at this point the definitive book on that subject so far) indicates their priorities rather that business is a small part of their operation.  In fact, it is a kind of business strategy.  I don’t think that has anything to do with the value of AdWords or AdSense.  Thanks for your reply.

      5. Absolutely John. We feel that between ads (they are very relevant now!) snippets from websites, and Google+ commentary we can give you the answer without wasting time to visit any website. Those complaining are webmasters that want to be paid for their content and advertisers that don’t want to pay the higher prices. Both are biased and don’t care much about making the net a better place.

      6. John, are you certain the above post is from “the” Matt Cutts of Google and not a forgery? It doesn’t ring true.

        But if it *is* truly from Google’s Matt Cutts:

        I don’t consider the time I spend visiting Wikipedia, Twitter, Amazon, LinkedIn, Bing, my own two blogs, Scoop.it, ReadWriteWeb, TechCrunch, BBC News, The Reformed Broker, or any of the other sites I visit on a daily basis a waste. I think it’s arrogant for you or Google to assume that people visiting other sites are wasting their time. To be blunt, *I* know what I am looking for and Google *doesn’t* and *can’t*.

  13. Hi John, you’re definitely expressing a sentiment I’ve also been struggling with over the past few months although I slightly more pessimistic about the path Google is taking, intended or nor. Google seems to be undergoing an identity crisis and by scrambling to catch up with Apple and FB they’re losing the one thing that always set them apart: the goodwill amongst its users. The company is being drawn into privacy and patent issues just like Apple & FB but it’s image is taking a bigger beating which I think will do massive damage in the longterm. People ‘know’ that FB means giving up your privacy and that Apple might be a patent bully but it’s accepted b/c that’s part of who they are and they deliver what people expect from them. But now Google is trying to be my friend and tell me what’s best for me and I resent them for that. The world needs/wants an open web alternative just as much as it needs/wants a closed one and Google is abandoning higher ground to come fight in the mud. 
    I worked for a digital marketing agency for many years and one thing that strikes me is how advertisers’ perspective on Google is shifting towards resentment. Yes Google engineers might still be thinking they’re making the world a better place but their public face is more and more that of a bully. It used to be that people wanted to use Google, now they feel they are forced to. 
    As a user, I’ve never looked at alternative search engines in years, but the last few months I’ve been shopping around for a Google alternative. It might all be anecdotal if your biggest supporters start abandoning you you might be on the wrong track as a company, unless you fundamentally and intentionally are changing direction. 

    In my opinion, Google should go it’s own path, regardless of what others are doing. Search can only get them so far and they’re pushing it too hard. Their future success will come from what currently are side projects such as those amazing goggles they demoed and the driverless cars. 
    But right now it feels like watching an old friend going off the rails without being able to do something about it.

    1. Thanks for your input. I sure hope folks from Google are reading all these great and thoughtful comments.

  14. – Could actions be explained if they are in some kind of Ponzi scheme, like do you regularly purchase things based on the web ads ?

    – No, no , of course not. Just a possibility, but it took authorities 10+ years to catch on to Madoff & Allen Stanford.

  15. A few random thoughts: 1) this piece reads like a sincere profession of faith from someone who believes fervently in both the “open web”, the entrepreneurial promise it holds and the deity with the resources to build an alternative to proprietary internet fiefdoms. The riff on God and a crisis of faith in the title is apt. 2) However, it’s not clear to me that the open web requires Google as a protector. You are so convincing that I almost forgot that Google also attempts to mold the web to its purposes (WebM vs. H.264, Dart vs. Javascript) and perhaps we should rely on public 3rd parties like, say, the European Commission to guarantee open opportunity. Besides, for all Apple and Facebook’s attempts at corralling users it doesn’t seem to prevent new web companies from taking off (Pinterest, Tumblr, etc.). One should not make the logical error of thinking that because Google relies on the web the web relies on Google (the modern version of “What’s good for General Motors is good for America”). Google could fail utterly and the web would continue.  3) You state the pro-Google rationale so well that I wonder why the bright young things in Mountain View have not been able to do so themselves as they stumble from one PR blunder to another. Perhaps you should consult for them? 🙂

    1. “Google could fail utterly and the web would continue” I totally agree. I just don’t like the idea that there won’t be a strong competitor to Apple and Facebook should that happen. As for consulting, well, I don’t do consulting but I suppose at some point I might. For now, I have to get this damn book written.

  16. Smart and well-written article.  I need more of this kind of thing, being something of a Dope in terms of how the likes of facebook and google are gradually insinuating themselves into my life without my paying enough attention.

  17. I’m really not enjoying the new tailored search results – I may have to change search engines! Almost ‘smart’ enough tech is just super irritating; I searched for my local real estate agent today to get their contact details, but, I assume because I’ve been browsing property lately, no dice.  All I got was listings of for sale property not matter what terms I used.  had to give up and get the yellow ages.  

  18. “blinkered focus on beating Facebook – a company which, at its core, couldn’t be more different philosophically”
    What? How so? Facebook commands about 25% of Web traffic and stands (step aside Bing) as the number one threat to Google, the advertising company. What on Earth has Google done to earn such respect and expectation of nobility? They plaster ads on everything they do. It’s a pretty simple model. Facebook is now getting social graph data and selling lots of ads.

    Google+ is a me too product (probably why it hasn’t caught a lick of traction) that the world (Google aside) doesn’t need. Perhaps one upshot of Google’s work is it improves the FB experience (through competition) for us all. But yeah, these companies are pretty similar. It’s about %share of the global web traffic, and it’s about ads.

  19. Great article. however RE: Android – those with Gmail accounts/Google accounts already sign in on their Android devices. So Google have a good sense of what apps you use, what music you like (especially with Google music) / what films you like / where you go (they record GPS info and will happily tell you how many hours you spend at work and at home via maps). 

Leave a Reply to Anonymous Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *