Google destroyed its one valuable asset

Opinion: Sadly, no one noticed

google logo Google destroyed its one valuable assetTHE ACT MIGHT have made headlines for different reasons, but last week, voluntarily destroyed their one valuable asset. It was a subtle thing, and no one seemed to notice, but could it be the reason that Eric Schmidt left?

What was Google’s horrid act? Easy, they silently censored their results last week. OK, it is a little bit deeper than that, Google censored their search results for something that is totally legal, has many legitimate uses, and all while not under a court or government order to do so. Basically, they made sure that the users of their search engine can no longer absolutely trust the company.

Google has a tremendous amount of information, personal, public and private. In fact the overwhelming majority of their business is based on searching those vast swathes of information, and delivering the right parts of it to you in the way you expect. People allow Google to possess that information and in many cases give it to the company, because they trust that it will not be abused. In fact, the unofficial company slogan is, “Don’t be evil“.

Trust is the one thing that lets Google survive, it is their one asset of value. The rest can be scraped, compiled, purchased, sorted and organized by anyone who takes the time and effort to do so. While this is a multi-billion dollar endeavor, there are several organizations that can or have done it too. If you look at Microsoft and their Bing search engine, they are by all accounts, 99% of the way there in all categories, and exceed Google in several spots.

In the marketplace, Google is destroying Bing. Google has 70+% of the US search market, and Microsoft is under 10%. Even with the co-opting of Yahoo, the combinded ‘Binghoo’ haven’t broken 25% marketshare. MS has been reduced to a pitiful state of purchasing users through things like the Yahoo not-a-takeover-really, purchasing Verizon searches, and contractually locking the phone users out of their ability to choose.

If it is not obvious, this is not a good way to make customers want to use you, in fact it is the best way that I can think of to make sure they never come back once they get the choice. It is the same thing that is happening to Microsoft now with Windows, and trickling down to all the rest of their products. MS built a walled garden, and forced people in to it through economic, monopoly, and sometimes illegal tactics.

Their justification was mainly, “where else are you going to go, you have no choice, ha ha.” Saldy, they were right. Once those alternatives became viable, be they Macs, Linux, Google Apps, various cloud services, Android, Libre Office and many more, MS started bleeding marketshare. A good example of this is Windows Phone/Windows Mobile/WinCE which lost 75% of it’s marketshare in a bit over a year, and has since dropped so low that most articles about phones don’t even mention it any more.

All of this is despite the fact that Microsoft makes almost every product that Google does, and they are basically functional equivalents. If you do a blind test, either side could be better at at something, but the differences would be nuance, not black and white. Given the pace of chance in the relevant segments, any perceptible technical lead will not last long.

Even with this state of technical parity, Google is gaining marketshare and making obscene wads of cash. Meanwhile Microsoft bleeds marketshare whenever they turn the money faucet down even slightly, and is losing a comparable numbers of dollars (Note: On search, not as a whole) to what Google is making. Same products, different outcome.

Why? Trust. Google has a history of doing right, or at least not doing horribly wrong, by their customers. “Don’t be evil”. Microsoft has a long history of abusing customers, clients, partners, and anyone else that can’t get away fast enough. The court records are littered with their misdeeds, worldwide, and nothing seems to have changed at MS headquarters. The difference in attitudes between Mountain View and Redmond is so stark it is painful. It is also very financially relevant.

If you are going to give your private information to a third party, who would you pick? If you were going to do something where your personal and private information could be harvested or gleaned, where do you want the results to go, Microsoft or Google servers?

This is hugely bad for Microsoft, people just don’t trust them while they do trust Google. Both attitudes were earned over long time periods, with ample records for anyone bothering to look. As we move from the computer age to the information age, trust is the one differentiator between companies you want to do business with, and those that you would not. Everything else is like the software, pretty much equivalent barring personal preference.

And this is what Google destroyed last week, the ability for users to trust them. On the surface, all they did was filter out a few terms deemed ‘unpalatable’ by certain corporate interests. These same interests also routinely trample user’s rights to extort higher profit margins. The Sony rootkit scandal, Microsoft overriding settings to place random code on your machine, Ubisoft’s DRM malware, just about anything Facebook has ever done, and Microsoft’s blatant data theft as a prerequisite to use the software you bought/retroactively removing paid for features hostage taking all come to mind. People paying attention, even a little, will realize that almost no large company has their best interests in mind. It is really hard to find an honest company. The few that are considered ‘honest’ have earned it the hard way, it takes years, and you can lose it overnight even if you are very careful. The road to bankruptcy is littered with firms that used to have user’s trust.

Google is one of those companies that was in the top tier of the informal user metric called trust. They earned it. Over a long time period. And they guarded it fiercely, occasional gaffes notwithstanding. Most of the ‘failures’ tend to be technical faults blown out of proportion by Google’s competitors or people they fund. Google is, by all accounts, trying to do the right thing.

Actually, that should read, “Google was, by all accounts, trying to do the right thing.” That ended last week with a whimper, not even a publicly acknowledged one at that. Google started silently censoring their search results for several legal terms, and cut at least one company, BitTorrent, Inc, out of some types of searches.

The limp-wristed defense from Google is that they only stopped it from being in their newish ‘autocomplete’ results, so it really isn’t cutting these things out. Anyone have any statistics for how many searches are completed through auto-complete vs taking the added step of manually doing the search? Want to bet it is pretty damn small? How often do you do one vs the other? Did you know Google tampers with the results?

It may seem minor, but it is the first step on a very slippery slope, and Google used to have an absolute defense against that. Now, they have no defense at all. Gone. Poof. Worse yet, the very same corporate sharks at Microsoft, Sony, Facebook and others, know that Google can be bullied into abusing users for them. Now that this absolute line has been crossed, you can bet it will happen again and again.

Think it isn’t a problem because some believe that the terms used can also be used for pirating? How hard is it to come up with some reason that some group finds something unpalatable? What if Sergei or Larry are backing a political candidate, or have taken sides on a hot-button political issue? What if the “donate to candidate/cause XYZ” search brought you nothing, to a page with an opposing point of view, or even a page with vicious malware?

What if the US government is majority run by a single party and they ‘ask nicely’ for Google to make searches to the opposition less effective? Senate majority leader caught with his/her pants down? Easy enough to make it go away now, just call up the right people at Google, apply a little pressure, and voilà, word will have a hard time getting out. Think it won’t happen? Ask Amazon why they don’t host Wikileaks any more. Ask Visa and Bank of America why they cut off Wikileaks but not the KKK.  Ask why this isn’t a possiblity for you or I.

Until last week, Google was the one place that you could point to and say, “My information is safe with them, and they will do right by me.” Last week, the company very quietly destroyed that reputation, and did so not with a gun to their head, but voluntarily. They destroyed the one thing of value that they had, and it is not a genie that can be put back into the bottle. Google can never again say, “We never have censored legal terms”, or “Trust us, we never would do that”.

This seemingly minor edit has deep and profound implications, and that trust may be a decade in repairing, if it is even possible. Think about how much you depend on the company, and what could happen if they decide that something else is unpalatable. Would you even know if they cut something out again?

Even worse are the financial implications. For functionality, Google = Bing, give or take an insignificant amount. Bing is failing, Google is hugely profitable, and the differentiator was trust. Was. That is now gone. If I were a Microsoft executive, I would be jumping for joy, and if I were the CEO of Google, I would be getting the h*ll out of town. Oh wait, he just did. Coincidence or foresight?S|A

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 Google destroyed its one valuable asset

Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and SemiAccurate.com. SemiAccurate.com is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of SemiAccurate.com, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also a council member with Gerson Lehman Group.