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Response to A Fanboy’s Defense of Google

Self-admitted Google “fan boy” Ryan Singel wrote a “In Defense of Google” article on today, calling out consumer watchdog group Consumer Watchdog. Consumer Watchdog has been very effectively lampooning Google on privacy issues lately. It must be starting to hurt, to draw such articles on Wired. Consumer Watchdog’s stuff is smart, just odd enough, sadly comical, and painfully insightful.

The latest was downright creepy… a very creative animation of Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt as the “Ice Cream Man”, that drive-around ice cream guy you don’t know but let talk to (and feed goodies to) your kids. Singel describes the artwork as “caricaturing its [Google’s] CEO Eric Schmidt as a creepy, high-tech ice cream vendor who profiles children”. Since I’m a search guy, I am very familiar with Google. I’m not a “fan” of Google’s business practices, but I am a fan of much of their work. So I “get” many of the little allusions embedded within the video that “civilians” might not get, including the FACT that Eric Schmidt has, indeed said many of the very things that this comic suggests he might say (which I assume make the caricature “creepy” to Mr. Singel).

I assert to you, Mr. Singel, that the reason this animated video is so poignant is because it parallels reality so well. The guy IS creepy to us, because of what he says, how he behaves, and how much power he has with Google.

As I skimmed through the article, I found myself contesting and discounting Mr. Singel’s statements about how unfair this characterization of Google and Schmidt is, time and again (and out loud… sorry Starbuck’s neighbors). Seriously… I work with marketers, issue framers, market shapers, and propagandists. This article is not good enough by current standards, but certainly seems to try to sway public opinion. When I got to the end of the article the kid in me sarcastically muttered “FAIL“, while the more grown-up part of me decided to comment in a blog post (this one).

A few notes… before I tire and move on to more important things.

“In the simplest terms possible, Consumer Watchdog is just wrong”

Nice try. Actually, in simplest terms, Consumer Watchdog is simply “right”. The parody is based in reality. Real factual accounts of things Eric Schmidt has said, ways he has behaved, things Google has done, and access it has to our (and our children’s) information. If it is exaggerated, skewed, biased, or even wrong on many points, it is still not “just wrong”. Next time try and use a more appropriate adjective. You can save yourself from simply being wrong.

“Have you ever actually seen ads on third-party web sites or Google’s own sites that are derived from assumptions Google has made about you based on your search history or what you have written about in e-mails? No, you haven’t. Google doesn’t do that.”

Fanboy Singel asserts this point very clearly and very early in his piece – a claim that Google just doesn’t do the sort of evil tracking the video suggests Eric Schmidt would do. As if to show Consumer Watchdog is lying. “Every search ad and every ad in Gmail or Google Images is essentially blind to who you are and is keyed off only the search term you just entered or the e-mail you just opened. That’s because Google’s ad tracking system and your Google account system are separated by design” Singel asserts.

I’ve been an SEO for a long time, and I have never, ever been able to state with certainty anything about Google’s internal practices like that. But then, Google never spoon-fed me inside information. Did this information come to Mr. Singel direct from Google? I wonder.

But no matter, because Mr. Singel authoritatively states that Google could do the evil tracking thing, and that others are doing it, and that it would be “easy” and “highly profitable” for Google to do it. Then he slips up and reminds us that Google owns a company that is doing it. Huh?

That’s right. He asserts that Google is way above the evilness of actually doing something it could easily do, is highly profitable, and easy to accomplish, and then reveals that Google owns a company that in fact does the evil deed for them.

“It does have a third-party ad service – AdSense (augmented by the Google buying DoubleClick) – that tracks what you do on the web sites that use its ad delivery technology. But those sites (with the exception of YouTube) aren’t Google owned, and that tracking isn’t anything different from what a dozen other firms, including Yahoo and Microsoft do”

That was one of the many times I muttered “FAIL”. If you’re trying to defend Google, best leave out the actual, factual, evil stuff like that.

Here’s my perspective. Google has, since it’s inception, told us how “not evil” it is.

It has repeatedly pointed to things others have done, suggested they were “worse” than whatever Google actually admitted doing at that same time, and claimed the high moral ground in public. Later, Google would change direction and execute on those same opportunities (often in a  big, powerful way). Just like that reference to Double Click not being Google (even though Google owns it) and Mr. Singel’s observation that AdSense sites doing Double-Click’s bidding aren’t owned by Google :

“those sites (with the exception of YouTube) aren’t Google owned”

They may not be Google owned, but they are paid by Google to do the tracking. It’s part of Google’s AdSense terms. Did you not know that?

As an SEO, I’ll even go so far as to say duplicity and deception seem to be in Google’s DNA, at best since Eric Schmidt came on board as CEO.

I know it’s a grand statement to say Google is genetically evil, but that’s how I’ve seen it consistently. I believe people are basically good, but they sometimes do bad things, not the other way around. Google, however, so far seems to have done all of the bad things it might easily get away with, and sometimes after earlier having publicly stated those would be evil things to do. Most of us older than 13 know such claims of “but Billy did worse” do not exempt us from social responsibility for our actions, but both Google and Mr. Singel seem to like that excuse tactic.

By the way, like Wal-Mart, Google is a public company, responsible to US law and its shareholders. If something is known to be easy and highly profitable for Google to do, and is being done by others so is presumably legal, I would be a fool to think Google won’t do them sooner or later, right? It would actually be illegal for Google NOT to do them. The only time a public company can successfully avoid doing profitable but legal evil, is if it can make an internal claim that there is downside risk associated with the profitable act. Risk of a public relations nightmare. Risk of promoting increased regulatory involvement. Risk of hurting partners or distribution channels, or other owned businesses, for example.

Just because it’s not a good time for Google to execute on an evil right now, doesn’t mean Google is above the evil act. Clearly history shows Google is very much capable of acting in its own interests at the expense of.. well.. everyone else.

Much of the details of Google’s duplicity are obscure and somewhat technical, but they are known to just about everyone who works in the Google-dominated search and advertising industry. Trust us, we’ve been there with Mr. Schmidt’s Big G and we know how the story ends.

I’d like the clarify that I’m not all anti-Google. Most of us in search and the web assume Google won’t do the worst things it can do. In fact, many of us risk our careers on that dubious presumption, despite our experiences to the contrary. The truth is, there is simply no other option given Google’s degree of control.

Many of us were very hopeful as Google got involved in things like blog comment spam, image hosting, and free Internet browser marketplace.

We didn’t need a new browser, but if Google Chrome would make the web faster, more secure, more standards-compliant and more “open”, that’d be great. Consumer Watchdog has been highlighting specific areas where Google’s Chrome browser leaks private data, even when Google claims the consumer is “safe” (such as in the Google-named “incognito mode”).

We hate comment spam. A rel attribute on an href is a relatively cumbersome thing to utilize to control comment spam, but if it removed the economic incentive for spamming blogs, that would be great. We are very wary of insider deals between Google (who already owns Blogger) and every major hosted blog provider (e.g. Typepad, WordPress), but if rel=nofollow is not really a compromise, and is really a cooperative tactic to manage comment spam, that’d be great.

Of course we knew the overwhelming driver of that comment spam was profit sharing paid out by Google through the DoubleClick-supported AdSense program, but we hoped for the better. We now know how much Google has extended this nofollow attribute to serve its own interests, separate from any comment spam hindering, and we all still have tons of comment spam.

We also loved the traffic Google sent us from image search enough to agree with Google that it was not actually hosting our images when it cached them on its servers, but rather giving us exposure (and traffic). Until of course, Google shut off that traffic stream (while continuing to host our images). Fool me once… fool me again?
Ryan Singel does to great lengths to list other presumably good, non-evil things Google does, and I can counter just about every one of them with an SEO insight that kinda shows he’s wrong. I won’t.. but I could. Okay… how about a quickie?

Google voluntarily deletes data after 18 months? Maybe, but wasn’t the public outcry originally against Google intentionally trying to save that data forever? And then for 365 days? Is the 18 month compromise really evidence of Google’s benevolence? And what about those comments from senior Google executives… that we should be glad it’s Google saving that data instead of some government? Seriously? Didn’t we already read (several times) about Google’s insider hookup (a.k.a. contracts) with the same government agencies that buy credit databases from private companies and hire contractors to exploit a loophole in civilian protection laws that makes comprehensive citizen tracking by the government illegal?

Now we have to notice that Ryan Singel isn’t speaking for Google (aside from that awkward question about where he got his insider data from). We have to do that, because statements like:

“that tracking isn’t connected with what you search for, what you do in Google Docs, what you do on your mobile Android phone or in your Gmail account”

These are likely to be flipped around in the future. Surely Google will do this someday. Why isn’t Google currently linking Android activity to tracking? Or using search activity to enhance tracking? It could. It would likely be “highly profitable”. See what I mean?

In this case, Ryan Singel may turn out to be wrong, not Google. It seems fairly obvious to me that Google knows when to hedge risk and hold back from too much aggressive invasion of privacy for huge disruptive innovations like linking every mobile phone to a tracked Internet user. But then again, I’m not a journalist. Nor a Google fanboy.

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  1. I don’t know where I stand on that video. On one hand, it seems to be scaremongering (creepy guy in an ice cream truck targeting kids – wonder what fear that’s targeting?) but some of the points are valid.

    I’d hate to see this debate degenerate into mudslinging and name calling though, just because that’ll stop anything worthwhile being done on either side.

    Monday, September 6, 2010 at 3:10 am | Permalink
  2. BillyG wrote:

    I saw a Forbes tweet with the same viewpoint as the Wired article that day – an example of big media sticking together – and just had to reply:

    “Gee, I wonder if Schmidt has a friend on your board too?” lol.

    I’m with you exactly on this one: love Google products and services, hate Google the corporate entity.

    We all knew it was gonna happen, I just wish it wasn’t so soon.

    Friday, September 10, 2010 at 9:40 pm | Permalink
  3. Arnold wrote:

    Interesting piece. Not sure how I feel about the video. It is definitely creepy, but I’ve never really had a problem with Google before. Although, it is definitely growing and seeming more and more like the “man”. Interesting stuff. Thanks for writing.

    Tuesday, September 14, 2010 at 11:53 pm | Permalink