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Monday, July 13, 2009

Google's Products Seem Designed to Make "Criticism" Beside the Point

Google's Matt Cutts generously admits that Googlers are too defensive when it comes to criticism nowadays. On further reflection, though, it will take a lot more than an attitudinal shift to change that state of affairs. Google, it turns out, is now a very large business that has designed so many of its products with the fašade of "automated and therefore uncontroversial," those few years of entrenched anti-institutionalism will take many years to undo, if the problem is even recognized.

As a business owner seeking to transact with Google, your sense of puzzlement may only grow if you're brutally analytical about what drives Google's economic engine. Isn't Google, at the end of the day, a classified advertising company like Craigslist or Yellow Pages, making money from highly targeted advertising? And don't those companies basically explain how their products work, and have clear mechanisms, rules, customer support protocols, and yep, in some cases, sales forces, to work in a relatively ingratiating fashion with the relevant customers and suppliers? Some of Google works in this way. Most of it does not. And most of us are still having difficulty grasping how we're supposed to interact with the 95% of Google that doesn't operate in this fashion.

This isn't primarily an issue of Google not taking input into the design of its products. It's particularly good at that. It now uses beta councils to take expert input into many products, and of course it's got the world's biggest user community to help it refine everything.

No, it's a deeper issue of how Google interacts in the transaction of business when it comes to a wide variety of products and how they will affect customers and partners. The informality of the thinking here was appropriate to a much younger company, but is bewildering as the company reaches maturity. They're not alone here. The bizarre amateur hours, arbitrary decisions, and laid-back communications that Facebook and Twitter users and partners are subject to are easily enough explained away by those companies' youth. Google is of course going to be held to a higher standard given the privileges they've enjoyed with growth, including enormous material gain in a competitive landscape.

My awareness of this broad issue began growing when I began to piece together the shift from older generations of the advertising rules and algorithms to the newer generation, dubbed Quality-Based Bidding. Don't get me wrong: as an advertiser, technologist, economist, and user advocate, I love the elegance of Quality Score. But it twigged me to a deep shift that was incorporated into algorithmic changes. A host of editorial rules and policy discussions could be baked into what was now referred to an "algorithm," not editorial policies. While Google kept its published guidelines for landing page and website quality (and indeed beefed them up), it's safe to say the theoretical need for human explanations, interactions and appeals was reduced greatly; it could, if Google wanted, approach zero. To the average observer with a background in placing advertisements in classified media, that looks like one introverted company! Especially one taking in $21 billion a year from that very revenue stream.

I had become more dimly aware of this issue when shifts occurred in how Google administered their AdSense advertising program from the publisher side, introducing Smart Pricing on clicks, so that an actuarial-style system determined how much less than the market bid price any given publisher should receive for a click, in order to reduce advertiser disgruntlement. That shift, too, had reduced the need for open policing of publisher partners, and over time advertiser satisfaction indeed went up. Efficiency triumphed, and the thing Google fears the most -- people in positions of authority taking responsibility for editorial judgments -- was submerged.

If these two highly public and highly controversial revenue generators were reduced to mostly algorithmic formality, just imagine how easy it would be for this company to tell that same story about all of its other products. Thus delaying, possibly forever, the need to develop old-fashioned institutional means and published rules for how the company accepts content and money from the many businesses and consumers attempting to interact with Google.

I dedicated Winning Results with Google AdWords (2nd ed.) to Bill Gates, perhaps as another small cry in the wilderness stating essentially this: It was pretty easy for Google to make decisions to avoid "being evil," and to look a lot less evil than Microsoft, back when it was an an apples-and-oranges case; Google small (as Matt Cutts points out, "many Googlers, especially old-timers, still think of Google from early days, when we were the underdogs in search"), Microsoft incredibly large and successful in its goal to lock users into its workflow environment. Things are now moving closer to apples and apples, or should we say oranges and oranges given that there's an Apple in this mix too. In releasing an OS, Anil Dash judges Google to be stepping into its "Microsoft moment." He doesn't say that is evil per se, but the primary accelerator of Microsoftishness (whatever it means, it was a moment/character that, for Microsoft, began as early as 18 years ago) is insularity.

Controlling for degree of difficulty (company size, global domination, etc.), it's quite possible that Bill Gates will ultimately be judged less evil than Google's founders. By dedicating a book about Google's main revenue stream to Gates, I guess I was just saying: let's hope it doesn't become so. Let's hope Google starts to recognize when they're competing too hard, too aggressively, too selfishly against all and sundry (including, sometimes, valued partners and allies). Anil Dash's analysis suggests cheekily that this will require the company to acquire Theory of Mind (something a two-year-old doesn't yet have).

One of the biggest tests of whether Google has the capacity to continue living up to their early ideals is precisely in the company's ability to accept constructive criticism. It's perfectly understandable for ordinary people to be a bit touchy in response to criticism. But when you're an entity worth over $100 billion that last time we checked wasn't formally in the business of eradicating diseases or helping old ladies across the street, thicker skin is going to have to come with the territory. This is what folks like Danny Sullivan (in The Google Hive Mind) and Anil Dash have been alluding to; and it's great to see yet another example of Matt Cutts' legendary openness.

I guess people like me and a few others (including Google "oldtimers," some of whom have moved onto places like Facebook, and Danny) feel a certain stake in the outcome, in the sense that over the years, much of what we've written has been accused of being too pro-Google. That's never been true, but we've certainly got a responsibility to be even-handed and to serve our own customers and readers - not Google's PR objectives (whatever we might guess them to be). I suppose Google may just have to get used to it.

Google has a million things going for it, but it's become a puzzle for those running businesses that are directly impacted by its decisions. That now numbers in the millions of businesses.

Mature companies develop institutional frameworks and transparent processes that manage their various lines of business. For the past few years, Google has made sometimes halting starts, other times major strides along these lines. But to take just its core area of search, Google today is now a patchwork of aggregation products -- news, real estate, reviews, video, product search etc. -- that have no common framework for submissions or membership. Communications and criteria often seem to be afterthoughts, and the community around Google (often supplying either content or dollars to Google) is left to scratch its head and wonder what the rules really are.

Looking at it in the context of the history of search, Google's many search products today stack up as similar to directories, classifieds, or paid inclusion schemes from the past, but without clear explanations of the role of editorial, without the explicitly paid parts, and without stated rules or expectations for what next year's rules might look like. For why Google is to its own core products as 1896 was to public administration, see The Progressive Era.

(AdWords, for all of its complexity and layers, is in fact a major institutional force at Google and its main cash cow, so is largely an exception to this rule.)

Over the years I've met more than a few Googlers who haven't felt the need to check every statement against the formal public relations protocol. Let's hope their light is never extinguished.

But it will likely take more than some frank commentary or a different attitude to reduce the ecosystem's growing bewilderment with Google. There are too many products -- even counting only search-related ones -- that face towards the legitimate, earnest, content-producing, advertising-dollar-spending community with a set of coded, impenetrable, quasi-rules. Will a new generation of Googlers be empowered to create relationships with affected businesses in a framework of institutional transparency and consistency, or will we continue to experience a "hey, we're just little guys from Mountain View" culture that spits out a confusing array of search "products" with the claim that their conception and impact is entirely scientific and that there is no editorial function or implicit, shifting rule set lurking underneath, just daring you to try to figure out what they are? In that kind of culture, you can't blame Google PR for being tentative and difficult to communicate with. In many cases, they wouldn't know what to say unless given a script; any more than you or I would.

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