Trusting Google, or not?

I’ve often argued that the corporate Web 2.0 platform enablers have a dual nature. They need both the trust of the user community (acting as dolphins, from a philosophy of abundance, working with trust), and need to please their shareholders (acting as sharks, from a philosophy of scarcity, trying to manipulate consumers).

I recently attended an open search conference in Amsterdam, where many seemed to believe, even though they couldn’t prove, that Google would manipulate search results. Because of the first half of their nature, I do not believe they would do such a thing, as indeed, it would destroy trust. Some weeks ago, it transpired that Google was adding its own ads to the mix, but still claiming that it did not manipulate the targetting algorhythms for their own benefits. Fair enough.

But according to Blake Ross, one of the Firefox pioneers, they now did cross the line with their ‘tips’ feaure, which exclusively promote their own products.

Blake starts by putting the context:

“Google is now displaying “tips” that point searchers to Google Calendar, Blogger and Picasa for any search phrase that includes “calendar” (e.g. Yahoo calendar), “blog” and “photo sharing,” respectively. This is clearly bad for competitors, and it’s also a bad sign for Google. But I generally support anything that benefits users, even if it’s controversial. I believe, for instance, that shipping Internet Explorer with Windows was a good move. So why are tips bad for users?”

He then explains why this new mechanism is bad for trust:

“he tips are different—and bad for users—because the services they recommend are not the best in their class. If Google wants to make it faster and easier for users to manage events, create a blog or share photos, it could do what it does when you search GOOG: link to the best services. To prevent Google from being the gatekeeper, the company could identify the services algorithmically.

But if that sounds familiar, perhaps that’s because Google already works that way. After all, Google is predicated on the idea that the democratic structure of the Web will push the cream to the top. Search for “photo sharing” and you should already get the highest quality services. According to Google, Picasa is not one of them. These “tips,” then, can only be a tacit admission of failure: either the company does not believe in its own search technology, or it does not believe its products are good enough to rise to the top organically.”

Blake then concludes:

Google’s new age “bundling” is far worse than anything Microsoft did or even could do. Microsoft threw spaghetti at the wall and hoped it stuck, and likewise there’s nothing wrong with Google’s arbitrary front page ads. The difference here is that Google knows what users want and can discreetly recommend its products at the right time. Microsoft can’t easily hide a program packaged with Windows (and doing so would defeat the purpose), but competitors can only discover Google’s bundling, which might be transient or limited to certain regions, through trial and error searching.”

The whole entry has more details making it worth reading in full.

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