Google destroys its brand difference

Have you noticed that when you use Google search, your location is now specified?  Notice in the image to the right, my location is given as Norwalk, CT.

You don’t have to do anything.  It’s right there.  Whether you like it or not.

This is one piece of my privacy I would rather keep, um, private. So I decided to read the fine print.

It says,

The customization of search results based on location is an important component of a consistent, high-quality search experience. Therefore, we haven’t provided a way to turn off location customization…

This the Google way of saying "We don’t care what you want.  We are acting unilaterally. Oh, and by the way, f*ck you.  We know better."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the end of the Google brand difference.  You remember, in the early days, when Google came up as the anti-Microsoft.  It even had an unofficial motive, "don’t be evil."  Everyone said, "Oh, give it awhile.  Eventually, Google will be acting exactly like Microsoft."  And then they didn’t.  Google stayed true to it’s brand difference.

Well, until this. So the question is: what are the alternatives in search?  Thoughts welcome.

15 thoughts on “Google destroys its brand difference”

  1. It’s such a stupidly 20th century corporate thing for them to do, isn’t it? First to negate choice and then to tell you they’re doing it for your own good…for the “high-quality search experience.”

  2. “Search”? That’s such a strange industry term. Besides having Google help me get from A to B, manage my emails, voicemails, and texts, shared documents and workspaces, host the videos I love to watch, and a million other things, the activity we engage in on Google.com isn’t search; it’s something much more fundamental to our online lives. Google has collapsed the distance between question and resolution (which apparently is making us stupid – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is_Google_Making_Us_Stupid%3F).

    But yes, they have been a parody of Don’t Be Evil for a while now. I’m sure there are some great analyses among the tech blogs out there, but for me the tipping point was that ludicrous (series of?) Eric Schmidt press appearance (well mocked by Jon Stewart et al) where he arrogantly told us ‘If You Have Something You Don’t Want Anyone To Know, Maybe You Shouldn’t Be Doing It’ – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/12/07/google-ceo-on-privacy-if_n_383105.html.

    Of course, I have no solution or alternative. I use them just like I use Facebook and Microsoft, and I resent them. All the way to the bank.

  3. To me the worst part is when they do this and they’re actually wrong. I was traveling in Brazil and couldn’t figure out how to change my location back to the US so that I could get better search results. Turns out it wasn’t possible. Oops.

    I agree with the above comments though, this is a much larger issue concerning privacy/control. Why not let me “lessen” my personal consumer experience if that’s what I feel so strongly I desire?

  4. I was thinking the same thing, as I traveled from UK to Switzerland for my holidays (actually I’m from Brazil). All my search results are different now, which they shouldn’t be. I can’t find what I’m really looking for.

    Internet doesn’t (or should not) have barriers re country borders. So, my results should be worldwide the same. They (google people) need to read Urich Beck re cosmopolitanism and reflexive modernity.

  5. I think Google has done more than destroy its brand difference—it’s frankly destroyed its own brand. When was the last time you heard someone self-identify with Google by saying “I’m a Google person”? Hardly ever these days.

    Google really jumped the shark this year—first with Google Buzz and then with localized search. Both of these moves were motivated more by economics than by improving its brand experience. Unfortunately for Google, they are caught in the awkward place of still trying to be a populist brand (the aww-shucks we’re just trying to democratize the web) to a gigantic corporation that’s relentlessly focused on trying to keep up with fast moving companies that are not playing by Google’s own rules.

    So as far as search goes, I think the company that offers up a competitive product and a brand that is “anti-Google” will be the next clear winner. It can happen—it always does.

    P.S. I find it ironic that this blog is asking Google to share my info to authenticate my own comments.

  6. Grant,

    I thought this quote, stolen randomly from Reddit, was appropriate to your frustrations –

    “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you are the product being sold.”

    Something we should all keep in mind when we periodically get upset over privacy issues. We think we’re the customer, but we’re not.

  7. Jason, when I first read that quote I was taken aback by how poignant it was. But, after thinking about it further I’ve realized it’s the best CTO excuse ever. Something for the lord of monitization to throw in the face of the product lead. It’s also quite convenient for product managers. Pesky privacy controls and nuanced settings? Throw out a pithy quote about how your millions of users are not your customer, or “should question what they have to hide” and move forward with a simple product. That’s acceptable for 2010, but even as our stomach for privacy will evolve, more nuanced settings and experiences will be necessary.

  8. Peter,

    Good point. I imagine the reality is that there is a balancing act between what those who actually pay the bills want and what the users want – they’ll need to optimize/please both sides in order get the most out of them both.

    Your experience in Brazil is a great example of a lack of optimization on both sides.

  9. That Reddit quote is brilliant. I’m accustomed to talking about media companies “selling eyeballs” to advertisers, but I had yet to train that laser focus on the world of freemiums and free services on the Web.

    The balance between pleasing advertisers and users is a century old, at least. But now I’m not just being sold to advertisers: my activities with these services are actually creating the information with which these firms can create value.

    But getting back to Grant’s main point, Google seems to have two main brand differences: the “do no evil” attitude, and the efficiently effective services. (Rsad the great post on how Google is bamboo and not a lobster trap for more.) And both have been steadily eroding for the past couple of years.

  10. You can support opt out of tracking legislation, although chances of passage are probably a snowball’s chance in hell…

    You can turn off cookies and get rid of flash if you want. Those are two big pathways to learning about you although there are others. There are other more technical tricks. You can also use other search engines in protest. I mostly use bing these days — not because they are more noble, but because they aren’t the trend setter.

    In the end I think most people don’t care about this – as long as it doesn’t get in their face. People say they worry about privacy, but don’t seem to understand the issues or care. Facebook would have died a long time ago if people really cared about these issues.

    It is amusing to see Google presenting themselves as “open” and not evil…

  11. I don’t speak for Google (although I work there) so this should not be construed as an official Google position. But I’ll defend a couple things in this thread.

    1) Search for “plumbers” on Google. Do you want to be linked to information about plumbers around the world, or get the number of a plumber to call in your neighborhood so you can get your toilet fixed? If the latter, your location helps provide better search results (like a list of plumbers with numbers and their locations on a map). This information is coming from your IP address (see http://whatismyipaddress.com/ for how it reveals your location) so it’s not like your location is being secretly divined using Google-specific information.

    1a) As an aside, I think it’s interesting that Google gets blamed for collecting otherwise public information. I understand that data on a public wi-fi network, or one’s IP address isn’t considered “public” in the same way that walking in the park is. But this points more to the fact that people’s intuitions about social norms have not yet caught up to digital technologies. Google engineers are more tone-deaf to those norms than most because they live with the technologies daily (and, let’s face it, are engineers). But one of the challenges is developing experience with the cues that match our social intuitions from the “real” world (e.g. http://www.nehrlich.com/blog/2006/09/04/articulation-of-virtual-cues/).

    2) If the location is wrong as happened to Peter earlier in the thread, there’s a “Change Location” option in the left-hand navigation bar so that you can get better results. I’ve switched mine on several occasions to, for instance, look up stores in a place I wasn’t currently located.

  12. What Eric’s comments point up for me is that “Don’t be Evil” is (probably not intentionally) a kind of meaningless phrase. I think it made sense for the organisation from the inside, probably comparing themselves to previous dominators of the tech sphere (Microsoft, IBM). But as a guide to action, it’s lacking – it just leads to utilitarian calculus about the trade-off between the perceived bad and good. So long as it all balances out, as long as the perceived good balances the perceived bad, that will do. There’s no impulse to actual good actions, just justifying actions as “not evil” – and indeed, when it gets to Mr Schmidt to “not that bad…”

    Not that we should expect anything better from a traditionally constituted corporation – it’s not in the genes of the organisation to be distracted from the financial obligations.

  13. I guess I’m missing the evil here. It’s just pulling your location based on your IP address to give you more relevant results. Is the issue that it might be collecting this information on the servers and storing not only what you search, but where you search?

    It’s a pretty common thing these days for websites to auto-detect your location and serve relevant content based on that.

    How is it creepier than Amazon’s “you might like this” feature?

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