There is an excellent post on Gizmodo today which describes Google’s competitive challenges and describes why their responses have been problematic. In the end it comes down to trust. In the early days we trusted Google because they said they weren’t evil, they seemed to back that up by acting in our interest, and (crucially) the data we were trusting then with wasn’t that significant. Fast forward to 2012 and Google is asking for much more trust so they can deliver a more personalised service but has undermined our trust by not being straight with us on a number of occasions.
In the late 1990s the search challenge was to direct us to the most relevant web page, and our expectations were relatively low. Now it is getting more difficult. Gizmodo describes Google’s future search challenge thus:
Picture this scenario. You are about to leave San Francisco to drive to Lake Tahoe for a weekend of skiing, so you fire up your Android handset and ask it "what’s the best restaurant between here and Lake Tahoe?"
It’s an incredibly complex and subjective query. But Google wants to be able to answer it anyway. (This was an actual example given to me by Google.) To provide one, it needs to know things about you. A lot of things. A staggering number of things.
To start with, it needs to know where you are. Then there is the question of your route—are you taking 80 up to the north side of the lake, or will you take 50 and the southern route? It needs to know what you like. So it will look to the restaurants you’ve frequented in the past and what you’ve thought of them. It may want to know who is in the car with you—your vegan roommates?—and see their dining and review history as well. It would be helpful to see what kind of restaurants you’ve sought out before. It may look at your Web browsing habits to see what kind of sites you frequent. It wants to know which places your wider circle of friends have recommended. But of course, similar tastes may not mean similar budgets, so it could need to take a look at your spending history. It may look to the types of instructional cooking videos you’ve viewed or the recipes found in your browsing history.
In other words they need access to some of our most private information – where we’ve been and what we like. The problem for Google is that this information is tied up and inaccessible inside Facebook, Foursquare and other semi-walled gardens. Google’s response has been to try and get the data. They built Google+ and now they are trying to force us to use it. Their fear of Facebook and Apple has led them to undermine our trust by putting themselves first and filling our search results pages with Google+ and other Google products which are inferior to the competition. Then to make matters worse they were shown up as liars when they were called out for a series of bad behaviours:
- Google subverted mobile Safari’s default protections to track users in ways they did not agree to be tracked. And lied about it, as the Wall Street Journal reported: "The findings appeared to contradict some of Google’s own instructions to Safari users on how to avoid tracking."
- Google began promoting its own products in search over more obviously relevant ones. It placed Google+ profiles above those that are obviously more relevant on other social networks. Its Places frequently appear above the actual location listings.
- Google has increasingly given prominence to ads over results. If you use an 11" Macbook Air, for example, and search for a generalized term like "music" your small screen will be full of ads—you will have to scroll to find search results.
- Google falsely claimed it couldn’t effectively index and rank Twitter.
- Google illegally accepted ads for Canadian pharmacies with the purpose of delivering them to American users.
- Google seems to have committed overt fraud in Kenya.
I can’t see them regaining the trust they had before. Whereas once they seemed to be a genuinely different sort of company those days are over. Going forward they will be expected to act in their own interests and not ours. The million dollar question (probably more like a $100bn question) is whether their personalised search products will be good enough that we all decide to let them have our personal data even though we don’t trust them. That same question also applies to Apple and Facebook.