Success Breeds…Slogans

 Let’s give credit where credit is due. Could it be that much of the criticism heaped upon Google is actually jealousy over two twenty-somethings with the vision and perseverance to strike gold?  Face it, Google’s founders did have vision, while myopia misdirected everyone around them from the get-go.  Page submitted his first paper, an overview of the PageRank algorithm, only to have it rejected. The paper ultimately was published in conjunction with a Stanford project, no doubt softening the power of its punch.  But Brin and Page persisted on this resistance-filled path, cluttered with naysayers.

And they found treasures in others’ trash.  For instance, in the late 1990s, the goal was not to send people away from a portal, as search did, but to glue them there instead, notes John Battelle in his book, The Search – How Google and its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture. Even Yahoo CEO Tim Koogle (how ironic) went so far as to “brag” in an analysts’ meeting that his search-related traffic was declining. But Page and Brin were gifted enough to see what others couldn’t. We should applaud them, not scorn them for this. 

That they carefully guarded their “baby” also is to be commended. A responsible “parent” not protecting its nurtured prodigy?  Let’s get real. Setting loose engineering managers who made their organization top-heavy was smart. So was dissecting employment decisions with the precision of a surgeon. Not spending a dime on marketing while their company was bleeding was responsible; bringing in PR exec Cindy McCaffrey to adopt a “press-first” approach was brilliant. Why spend money when you can get the media to spotlight you for free?  And the media were thrilled to oblige; Google became their do-no-wrong darling.

I do, however take issue with Page’s put-down of inventor Nikola Tesla’s reach, as related in Battelle’s book: “The Twelve-year-old Page was struck by this fact: regardless of how brilliant and world-changing Tesla’s work had been, the inventor received little long-term fame or fortune for his efforts.”  Now that’s a bit arrogant, considering the unit of measurement of a magnetic field is — Tesla.  So why would you care? Say you’re having an MRI critical to your future health. If the machine you’re lying in is three Tesla, you’re in state of the art. Two Tesla?  Not quite as much resolution. I’d say, “Give me more Tesla!”  

            And at least some have questioned whether Google’s motto, “Don’t be evil,” also smacks of superiority. Battelle notes that Amazon CEO (and Google investor) Jeff Bezos “summed up the reactions of many observers” in telling him, “Well, of course, you shouldn’t be evil. But then again, you shouldn’t have to brag about it either.”

 Journalist Jeff Jarvis also weighed in during a recent interview, calling the slogan “dopey” but valuable in spurring Google staff to question behavior and tactics http://onthemedia.org/transcripts/2009/02/27/06. “I know this is awfully optimistic to say, but I have to believe that a company that gives its employees the license to question its actions, based on its mission, is a good company,” Jarvis said.

I don’t really care much about slogans, because it is action that matters. And I certainly don’t view Google as “evil.” To the contrary, the company has created a lot of value. On the other hand, I do find some things a bit creepy for my taste. Take 800-GOOG-411. I tried it out after reading David Pogue’s New York Times post, in which he gushes over Google’s geniuses and “gems,” the 411 service being one of them http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/26/technology/personaltech/26pogue.html?_r=1. The information I received about delis in my area was right-on, but why did I hear the message, “Call’s recorded”?  I can’t recall any other 411 service recording my communication.  If Google as a company is entitled to some privacy, why aren’t we?

I was happy to read that Google has voluntarily agreed to blur images of certain locations, ranging from the White House to shelters for victims of domestic violence, on its Google Earth satellite service. http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/03/california-lawmaker-wants-online-map-images-blurred/#more-2677. A California lawmaker has raised the issue of protecting “soft targets” like schools, hospitals, houses of worship and government buildings; he reportedly introduced a bill after reading reports suggesting that terrorists used online map imagery to plan attacks in Mumbai and elsewhere. An Indian court is considering a ban on Google Earth following reports that its imagery played a part in the Mumbai terrorist attacks.

The question is why on earth we need Google Earth. I can imagine more harm than help emanating from that service. Must we endure yet another blow to our privacy? Hey, Google, maybe it’s time for that reassessment: “Don’t be Evil.”

 

 

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