Essays on Technology and Culture

Google’s Misplaced Priorities and the Trust of Users

It’s not that I fear Google, I just don’t trust them anymore.

Forget about the Google Graveyard, and the imminent death of Reader. Google’s made a pivot away from making cool things supported by ads, to selling ads to support (some) cool things. It’s a small difference on paper, but a massive difference in how we relate to a company that many of us have uploaded our lives to. The reason we did this in the first place, was that Google’s offerings were simply better. If you used web based email in the dark days before Gmail, you understand what I’m talking about. Nobody, and I mean nobody, has done web based email as good as Google does it. [1] That’s the blessing and the curse, and now we’re (more) aware of both of those.

I don’t blame Google as a company, or Larry Page as an executive. I blame who Google has chosen to be beholden to. Google is a public company, publicly traded and owned by a lot of people, directly and indirectly. It is to the benefit of those owners that Google show year-over-year, quarter-over-quarter growth in revenue and profit. Whether this is to Google’s benefit is up to debate, but in order to keep those people happy, Google has made the decision to run with the “profits over products” mantra that is the shameful standard among companies these days. I don’t need to say who the notable outlier is.

The stock market is a system that evolved in the days when most companies big enough to be publicly traded were in the business of making real, tangible things. To make more money, you either made and sold more things, sold the same number of things, but at a lower cost to you, or both. [2] When you don’t have a tangible thing to sell, whether it’s a service, or an infinitely replicable string of bits that takes up no real physical space, the old ways of making money break down. Look at the record industry for an example. Though Google’s gotten into the physical goods game with buying Motorola and selling the Chromebook Pixel, it’s still mostly dealing with intangibles. There’s no scarcity, and the costs are as low as they can go.

The business end of Google is plugged into a system designed for a much different economy, one where you could, and should pump most of your profits into making things faster, better and/or cheaper. It’s like plugging a MacBook Air into a vintage IBM Mainframe. Getting them to talk to each other is a miracle, wastes the power of one, and taxes the power of the other. [3] However, it’s to the benefit of those shareholders for Google to bend to the rules of this old system, and since one of those shareholders is Larry Page, and he sets the priorities. If your personal bottom line and career depended on keeping that stock price going up, you’d make some of the same decisions, too.

Those decisions are coming at the cost of us Google users. We used to be able to trust Google, because Google put us first. Ads were the necessary tradeoff, and we accepted them in the same way we accept ads on television, radio, magazines, and newspapers. [4] Perhaps not all of that trust was earned, but for a good while, it looked like “Don’t be evil.” was more than just a slogan. Even now, I hesitate to call Google’s actions evil. They are perfectly reasonable actions based on a set of priorities that I find to be misplaced. I’ll work with them, and I’ll acknowledge a good product when they have one, but I doubt I’ll ever be putting my full trust in Google again.

  1. The web-based Gmail interface has its detractors, but nobody points to anyone doing it better on the web.  ↩

  2. Grossly oversimplified for the sake of example.  ↩

  3. Which of these two things represents Google and which represents the stock market is an exercise for the reader.  ↩

  4. Here, you might complain about Google targeting ads based on what it knows about you, and whether they ever really put “us” first. This is nothing new, and honestly, it’s the only way they could do advertising in the Internet age. Necessary evil.  ↩