Google's Tipping Point

Taken in a vacuum, a fairly trivial thing happened a few days ago. The co-founder of Firefox, Blake Ross, wrote a post criticizing Google called “Tip: Trust is hard to gain, easy to lose“. He takes issue with a new Google search feature that promotes certain of their own products over organic search results. See Google searches for Calendar, Blogging, Photo Sharing and others and see Google pushing Google Calendar, Blogger and Picasa, respectively, above what is supposed to be the most relevant results – Google search. Even a search for Yahoo Calendar has these Google results above the obvious destination the user was searching for.

I say this is trivial incident taken in a vacuum because, quite frankly, Google has every right to promote their own products on their website. But I think Ross’ post may be a sign of a change in attitude towards Google that’s been percolating for the last year or so, and is beginning to manifest itself. The fact that a highly respected entrepreneur finally spoke out should be a wakeup call for Google.

Part of the problem is that Google has always held itself to a higher standard than other companies. We took them seriously when they said their corporate motto is “Don’t be evil“. It was the right thing to say when they were young and battling the hated Microsoft. But today, as they begin to put themselves before what’s best for their users, that motto is coming back to haunt them.

They can’t redact the motto, of course. They can’t take back those words. Google will forever be held to a higher standard than everyone else, simply because they asked us to.

This Google search misstep, aggregated with others, is taking a toll. People seem less willing to give Google the benefit of the doubt when they try something new. And with so many bloggers eagerly awaiting the opportunity to jump on any bandwagon that comes along, this subtle shift in public attitude could signal a tidal wave of negativity down the road.

We’ve seen this before. Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft were the darlings of the valley back in the late nineties. Just the fact that an entrepreneur got a meeting with one of them was something they brought up in their pitches to venture capitalists. The big three became very arrogant about their positions on the top of the food chain.

They had big revenue numbers to hit to keep the stock price soaring. Any kind of real business development deal took seven or eight figures just to get in the door. $10 million/year revenue guarantees became commonplace in deals. When the stock market crashed, and venture dollars dried up, so did the advertising market. Those big deals went away. Much of the revenue was never recognized because the companies promising it went bankrupt. Yahoo and the others were hit hard. Layoffs occurred and CEOs were fired. And the arrogance went away. Today, entrepreneurs tell me they are an absolute pleasure to deal with, and open to new and sometimes outrageous ideas.

Now Google is in the position of dominance, and they definitely have the arrogance that goes with it. But they are in a very difficult spot because of that damned motto, and perhaps right on the tipping point where public opinion could change. More and more, people are hoping for Google to stumble. And every time they do, the press pounces. And they always point to the motto.

Google needs to change. They can’t kill the motto, so they need to live up to it, permanently. They need to stop treating the outside world with disdain, and replace it with transparency and honesty. Users must always come first. Always. And they need to do it soon. Once the shift in public opinion becomes obvious, it will be way too late. And while Matt Cutts, the unofficial Google blogger, deals with the Ross post in a straighforward and honest way, I think he should be far more critical of his company. Even to the point of risking his job. Because that is exactly what Google needs right now.