I have a serious problem with Google. This is a difficult statement to make, because I don’t think there is one Google. The company is so large, and spans so many interests, that to say something as vapid as “Google is evil” does not adequately portray how complex and sprawling the Google system is. There is a Google that drives exciting, fascinating innovation — such as that in wearable computing, automation, big data, cartography. There is a Google that supports and nurtures research and thinking into distributed systems, cloud computing, and the practice of software engineering. There is the Google that hires scientists, engineers, designers, and my friends and supplies them with a pleasant environment for them to do their very best work. Ultimately, there is the Google that reports finances to shareholders — the Google that is concerned with making a profit. Google is an advertising company. Google makes money when it displays a highly relevant, targeted advertisement to a user. The advertisements are effective, because the user informs Google of their habits, their interests, their aspirations through usage of Google products.
Google is not “evil”. Google is too big to be evil. At its worst, Google is banal.
My serious problem with Google is that their products for users (the ones that collect information to inform advertising) are becoming confused, inarticulate, and increasingly malicious. Malicious in that Google is effectively transforming the World Wide Web itself into one of its products by controlling (through a natural monopoly) traversal and discovery (Google Search).
I am a web developer. I care deeply about the free and open usage of the protocols and standards that comprise the web. I think Google is leveraging its immense power in Search to force users to adopt certain protocols and standards in order to drive users into other Google products. Thereby increasing the amount of information that Google can use to attract advertisers.
Google Owns the Web Browsers
A Google Search interface is embedded into the UI of nearly every major web browser by default. Most of these browsers have adopted an interface that makes inputting a URL the same interaction as performing a search. A Google Search has become as meaningful, if not more, than the URL — a fundamental building block in the web. One of these browsers, becoming more and more dominant, is also a Google product. The kernel of this browser is free and open source. Google spends a lot of time and energy into making its web browser product fantastic, not just in User Experience, but for developers as well. Paul Irish, Addy Osmani, and Ilya Grigorik are talented, well-known developers that I have a great deal of respect for. Each is actively working to make sure that web developers have access to both fantastic tools and deep knowledge to make it easier to build experiences for the modern web.
Developers like myself are enticed, encouraged, and incentivized to build for the web using tools created by Google. By virtue of the fact that we build our web experiences using Google Chrome’s tools, our work is meant to be seen using Google’s web browser — leveraging the technologies they create and invest in1. Google has, in a roundabout way, enlisted us developers in making their advertising platform better.
Google owns its own web browser and attracts web developers to prefer it in building their experiences. Or a Google interface is embedded in other browsers. The URL is effectively dead as the entry point to a web site; long live the search keyword. Google also supplies its own DNS service and is rolling out its ISP in select markets. Google owns the web browsing experience, nearly end-to-end.
Google Owns Your Online Identity
Google Search is the most powerful interface to the World Wide Web. So powerful, that you ignore it at your peril. If your web site does not appear in the initial result set for a keyword search, you might as well not even be on the web. Google’s PageRank is the mysterious, proprietary voodoo that Google uses to carrot and stick webmasters to adopt certain protocols and standards2. Microformats and Schema.org are brilliant tools that allow web authors to inject additional semantic meaning into HTML. Right now, Google is the most powerful user of that data3.
When Google announced authorship in search, it leveraged these semantic markup techniques to compel publishers and authors to markup their documents to maximize opportunities for discoverability.
But it requires a Google+ account. And Google+ is a lousy product. It’s clear that the attention and love paid to developers from the Chrome team is lacking from the Google+ team.
I am represented online as http://markwunsch.com. In order for me to maximize my discoverability online, so that a user who searches for “Mark Wunsch” is more likely to find my online footprint and not confuse me with Mark Wunsch, coral reef photographer, I must sign up with a Google+ account and associate it to my personal web site.
Google+ is a lousy product that is seeping into the user experiences of all Google products. If you want me to explain my assertion that Google+ is lousy I’ll certainly be happy too in another blog post — but it is. To make my graph of nodes that represent my online identity on the web appear as a single unit in a web directory, I have to to sign up for a johnny-come-lately social network. That is fucked. Increasingly, as you use Google’s products: Search, Maps, Android, Chrome, Gmail, YouTube, you’re going to get Google+ on you.
This is the source of my big problem with Google, and after this next sentence you can stop reading this if you want. Their product strategy stinks, and they’ve got this big stinker called Google+ dragging their whole product catalog down with it.
Google Can Be Kind Of Lousy
Even without the stench of Google+ seeping in through the cracks, Google has done some pretty lousy things. Remember Google Buzz? Yeah that was a big fucking stinker; in so many ways Google+ is just the logical next step for Buzz. Buzz didn’t die, it just expanded in scope. Remember Google Wave? I kind of liked Google Wave, but Google now has a legacy of building up innovative technologies only to kill them, and neglect them.
Here is a list of Google Products. What’s not here? Google Reader, an RSS reader on its way to the grave4. FeedBurner, tools for web syndicators and publishers. Google TV, which lol. Google’s own Google Talk service has been replaced with Google Hangouts. Google’s recent past is littered with crap that didn’t pan out. What’s worse, as interesting technology companies rise up, Google answers them with lukewarm competition: Google Docs was transformed into Google Drive thanks to Dropbox. Evernote was met with Google Keep. Google announced during the latest IO that they are entering the music space (for the 3rd time?) to compete with Spotify and Rdio. Google isn’t making many developer friends for this.
Are you a developer interested in Google’s technologies? Good luck. There’s Google Code, which makes a distinction between Google Developers and Google Code Project Hosting. The Guava project is a set of great libraries for Java, hosted on Google Code. Information about the Go Programming Language, Dart, and Chromium are found elsewhere. But you can find Dart on GitHub and even Google on GitHub. This is such a mess, and is demonstrative of how confused and uncoordinated Google’s internal teams are.
The worst thing I can say about Google is the same thing Steve Jobs leveled against Microsoft. They have no taste. Their design ability might be improving, but again and again they show a lack of editing — they lack the ability to be selective about their product portfolio. There is no unified Google that is “good” or “evil”. There is just an organizational clusterfuck that is unable to decide what it thinks is truly the best way to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”5. Is that by forcing web authors into a social network in order to improve directory results? Is that by dipping a toe into the music business? Is that by abandoning standards like RSS and XMPP/Jabber? I don’t think so.
Google has a problem. The problem is that nobody says no. Google effectively owns the Web, and they’re lousy managers.
Want more answers?
Angry about this? Here’s what to do. Switch to Firefox. Mozilla is a non-profit whose mission "is to promote openness, innovation & opportunity on the Web", which seems pretty cool. Use DuckDuckGo as your primary search engine; they “believe in better search and real privacy at the same time”, which seems pretty cool. I’m probably not going to be doing either of those anytime soon. I’m too stuck in my ways. I like Gmail’s labels and I like Google’s search results and Google Chrome’s developer tools are really great and Google Maps is better than Apple Maps right now, especially when it comes to transit information. I’m trying to wean myself off of Google bit by bit. It’s hard, because some of their products are so good, but some of them are real shitters and I’m afraid the shitters are winning.
Reminder that I’m building an RSS reader, in pre-alpha right now. You can signup for more information and early access. ↩