The Good and the Bad of Google, Corporate Citizen
If I'm a tad schizophrenic in my feelings toward search engine giant Google, it's because the company sometimes seems like a many-headed hydra whose various heads have no clue what the others are up to.
On the positive side: Google last October announced a wonderful plan to donate one percent of its stock value--just a whisker under a cool billion at the time of the announcement--to various change-the-world charities--and to donate various other streams that push the total value well above that amazing $1 billion mark.
This is wonderful! It makes sense both to advance founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin's vision of the kind of world they want to live in, and to advance Google's corporate goals of continued market dominance. (One of the initiatives, for example, is to help MIT develop $100 computers. Guess how they'll link to the world?).
Also on the positive side is Google's ability to create a powerfully positive user experience. How did I find the above article? I received a Google News alert by e-mail for ethical business, that linked to a blog post by Joseph Newhard. After reading the article, which was more commentary than news, I wanted a more authoritative source to quote from, so I typed the following string into Google
google "$1 billion" healthcare
About three seconds later, I had the San Francisco Chronicle article I referenced earlier.
Oh yes, and I'm typing this on a Blogger blog, owned by Google. If you're reading it on my own site, I use Word Press for the mirror blog. And I switched my site-specific search engines to Google a couple of years ago, because it didn't need me to tell it each time I added content. Though I'd love to see them add the feature of searching a few sites at once under common ownership that my old, clunky search engine offered.
And I think it's fabulous that Google now has a share value of $100 billion and profits of $968 million--because those profits are built on doing a lot of things right--first of all, creating a search engine that gives the right results if you know what to ask for, and gives them instantly. Second, not bothering with a revenue model until "usership" had built up. And thirdly, introducing its primary revenue model--a modification of the old failed model of web ads--as the brilliantly successful low-key, non-intrusive contextual advertising, with millions of partner websites who are benefiting from Google' success. Obviously, it works.
But then there are those other heads: Google Book, for instance, *almost* works. The ability to search books' complete text is great. The it's-a-big-pie model that shares revenue with publishers by directing purchasers to publisher websites to buy the book is great. But what's not great--and the Authors Guild is suing over it--i that Google insists it has the right to take books into the program without consent of the copyright holder.
If there is any justice in the courts, Google will lose this case--and it will be a big, expensive mess. Just as an example--I'm delighted to have the text of my most recent book, Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, in the program; I think that can only help sales. But I have deliberately refused to put in my older e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook--because with that book, appealing to a self-defined frugal audience, it's much more likely that a searcher would find the specific piece of information wanted and feel no need to then spend $8.50 to own the content. For authors of cookbooks, reference manuals, travel guidebooks, etc., involuntary participation in the program could be a disaster. Google could, I think, easily develop a form to submit to publishers enabling them to quickly import their entire catalog and check yes or no for the program. By saying "we have the right unless you opt out," they're acting like spammers, violating copyrights unnecessarily, and depriving publishers of the right to make decisions about how their copyright-protected material is used.
And then there are some serious concerns about privacy. See for instance "Google as Big Brother" on the Google-watch site (scroll down to "Google's immortal cookie"). If you want to find more, here's Google's own results page on a search for google privacy. Stories on Wired and elsewhere raise cause for alarm.
Of course, Google isn't the only company to be a bit erratic in its ethics. I could have easily written a similar article about Microsoft, or Ford, for instance.
But Google does so much that's right--I just have to wonder about their blinders on the copyright fronts, and take a watch-and-wait attitude on the privacy front.
Shel Horowitz's Business Ethics Pledge campaign seeks to create a climate where future Enron/WorldCom scandals will be impossible. He's the author of the Apex Award winner, Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First and five other books.