Has Google Reached The Perception Tipping Point?
from the an-important-question dept
Last week, Anil Dash wrote up a thoughtful post wondering if Google had hit its “Microsoft Moment,” which I’ll loosely paraphrase as the moment when more people were afraid (or, at least, were marginally distrustful) of the company than that loved the company. For many years, part of Google’s success has been based on its ability to “not be evil.” That mantra — often misinterpreted — tried to get the company to focus on putting the user first, which, in turn, led many people to trust Google and its quirkiness. And yet, the company has grown bigger and bigger and bigger. And the fear over what that means has only grown — some of it reasonably, some of it certainly driven by competitors and critics. While I believe that the folks at Google really do still think of themselves as being totally customer focused and still try to present themselves as that quirky Google, they’re reaching a point where they need to do a lot more to support that perception outside the company. Because it’s really not getting through in many cases.
We’ve noticed this a bit ourselves, with some of the moves the company has made in the last few years showing a distinct change in tone. Whereas there was a point that Google seemed to be defending legal battles on principle, when the company capitulated with the record labels about YouTube, with the Associated Press and, most recently, in its (still in court) book settlement, a different story emerged. In all of those cases, the deals made Google stronger — while making competitors weaker by not standing up for some key principles. Google started to use its massive cash coffers not to defend key principles, but to dump the problem off on smaller players. Of course, I believe this has already started to come back to haunt the company. The fact that publishers knew they could get a book settlement out of Google was because it had given in on the YouTube and AP deals without standing up for fair use.
Either way, it became quite clear that Google was no longer Silicon Valley’s defender. It was Google’s defender. And, of course, some will argue that’s exactly as it should be. Google has no responsibility to stand up for the principles of others. At the same time, many will claim that Google would be silly not to use its money to harm competitors. But these all showed a particularly un-Google-like view of the world. It was that “don’t be evil” stand that made people trust them. It was that belief (real or perceived) that Google was entirely focused on making the world better for everyone that built up that trust. These moves (and some of the moves Anil discusses in his piece) may make the shareholders happy in the short-term. But they end up harming reputation in the long-term.
As Google is fighting accusations of antitrust, the message it keeps trying to spread is that competition is only a click away. The company would be wise to remember that itself, because sometimes it doesn’t actually act that way.
That said, I don’t believe the company is acting “evil” or that it should be accused of any sort of antitrust violations. But the company has certainly acted a lot less “Googley” lately, and Anil is correct in saying that it appears a lot of folks internal to the company don’t really recognize that (or want to believe it). It’s definitely hard to keep that kind of culture and attitude as a company gets bigger (and, as some of its earlier employees sail off). And, to its credit, Google has certainly been able to keep a “good” reputation for a lot longer than other companies (and longer than many suspected Google could keep it). But that message has been drifting, and Google would do well to recognize how the external world is perceiving it.
Longtime Googler Matt Cutts responded to Anil’s analysis in what I’d consider to be an open letter to other Googlers to take Anil’s words seriously, rather than angrily (or just dismissing it as idle criticism). Hopefully that message gets through.