Googling for a Philosophy


I have a short piece in tomorrow’s Irish Times about the whole Google privacy, and in the process of writing it I came across the search giant’s corporate philosophy. Reading through it, it’s pretty clear that something’s gone awry since the early days.

Now, I am a largely satisfied user of plenty of Google products, and heavily rely on Gmail and Reader. I don’t think that these privacy policy and terms of service changes are rendering the company evil, as so many pundits seem to claim. (There has been lots of good discussion about the wisdom or otherwise of the Don’t do Evil motto, especially Harry McCracken’s strategic analysis and Marco Arment’s semantic deconstruction.)

But I used to really like Google’s products, and now I just use them. Ask me what happened to upset that balance and I’d be hard-pressed to put my finger on it – increasingly cluttered designs, counter-intuitive usability, some half-baked “improvements” that boggle the mind all played a part, for sure. But look at these philosophies, originally written in 1999, and it becomes a bit clearer.

“Ten things we know to be true,” it starts, with all the precocious wisdom we became so accustomed to. This should be good.

“1: Focus on the user and all else will follow.”

Okay, that’s reasonable, it’s certainly a truism. Do Google focus on the user that much anymore, though? The Buzz fiasco, for one, would suggest the focus is a little fuzzy.

“4: Democracy on the web works.”

Good idea. But Search Plus Your World? The entire approach was to over-ride the democratic decision of people to use one crappy social network, Facebook, over Google’s less crappy social network. Democracy on the web works, but who exactly is the arbiter of democracy here?

“6: You can make money without doing evil.”

I think we’re at the stage where Google have realised they can make money without doing evil, but they can make more money by being somewhat less than wholly good, too. Consolidating user data across all their services isn’t evil, of course, but the path they’re walking down is a precarious one, and it’s us users who are at risk if they lose their way.

“8: The need for information crosses all borders.”

Tell that to the Chinese. It’s important to argue the merits of Google’s behaviour in China, and a strong argument could be made that they tried to play a progressive role while they were there, but still. They censored their search results. Sadly, this isn’t the most preposterous deviation from their founding philosophy – that would have to be the second tenet.

“2: “It’s best to do one thing really, really well.”

What the…one thing really, really well? From the search company that is pioneering self-driving cars? Who are getting sued in France for putting map companies out of business? Who invented a daft communications platform in Wave that didn’t solve a single problem anybody had ever had, but instead introduced a whole load of new ones, such as “How the hell does this work?” At this stage, they not only seem incapable of focusing on just one thing, they can’t seem to do anything really, really well. Which brings us to…

“10: Great just isn’t good enough.”

There was a time when I thought that if any technology could surpass “Great” it would be Google. Now, I’d be surprised to meet anybody who believes that. It’s sad to say it, but too often Google just isn’t good enough.

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