Amazon gets in trouble for deleting the public’s ebooks, Microsoft is infamous for rushed development cycles and buggy software, but somehow Google remains the golden-boy of information technology companies. For many of us, Google is the first page we see when we open our browsers, Google provides the search results we rely on, and Google is the first port of call for our information requests. For information aficionados like myself, Google’s self-proclaimed mission to “organize (sic) the world’s information...” is a noble aim with a fine historic tradition from the Library at Alexandria through Paul Otlet’s Universal Book to the beginnings of World Wide Web technology. How does such a large corporation garner such public loyalty and trust?
Part of this public perception is due to the role that Google plays and its ability to change that role as time has gone by. In the early days of the internet when web browsers opened up a new frontier and the public was eager to explore a digital landscape, Google acted as a reliable tool with which to search this fresh environment. Its unique algorithms and PageRank technology provided better results than AltaVista, Yahoo, and Excite, and so Google offered more help to a population lost and bewildered in a forest of HTML. Google’s role was that of the shop assistant who helps us find the exact item we want.
Over the years Google’s role developed as internet users matured. Google Zeitgeist’s reports show what terms the public searched for every year. 2001-2004 shows that the majority of searches were queries for information – ‘anthrax’, ‘osama bin laden’, ‘harry potter’, ‘iraq’, ’50 cent’, etc. These are searches with no fixed destination in mind. In 2005 a shift occurs. The top-gaining searches are for websites that the searcher already knows exist: ‘Myspace’, ‘wikipedia’, ‘Sky News’, iTunes’. Google’s role changes from searcher to navigator, helping an educated internet-using populous to find their way across the internet without bothering with the peculiar syntax of URLs. In 2009, a lot of us use Google without even thinking about it, letting it direct us to our favourite sites as a reflex. Google has always been reliable and its layout has not changed since it was launched. Reliability, consistency, and familiarity: the foundations of trust.
Another major factor is the company’s presentation of itself as an innocent and whimsical corporate entity. The logo is simple and colourful. The name is fun to say – in the early days people thought it referred to a children’s clothing company. Among professionals, Google is known as one of the greatest places to work, encouraging a free-wheeling, university-campus atmosphere with free time given to employees for ‘Innovation’. Among the public, the company’s April Fool’s Day pranks are well-known (which sort of defeats the purpose of a prank).
Central to the company and the public perception of it are Google’s business ethics summed up by their unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil.” Google actively avoids the pitfalls of large companies by avoiding shady dealings and keeping their users at the centre of their business. When Google acquired companies like YouTube and Blogger, it kept their services largely unchanged. Despite its growth, Google is still devoted to its central mission of facilitating search. It has been uncorrupted by the advertising it offers through AdWords and AdSense. Though it makes its money from advertising, the main site’s core search technically makes no profit: unless you click on a sponsored link, Google makes nothing from a search. As James Grimmelmann has said, “Google’s business model has always been to provide information for free, and sell advertising on the basis of the traffic this generates.”
For any other company, an article like this would be a cause for distrust. On the face of it, it sounds extraordinarily sinister: company employees sneaking into libraries around the world and scanning books into a massive central database using an unknown method. It sounds like the premise of a Dan Brown novel. But our familiarity with Google leads us to picture not shadowy G-men but a kindly uncle preparing a special surprise for us all. When Google says its only aim is to facilitate the search for information and the preservation of out-of-print books, I believe them. You’ll understand how unusual it is for me to trust any corporation.
Over the coming years, Google will play a major role in information management. They are at the forefront of the digital preservation movement and their search protocol has redefined how we search for information. Their business ethics offer a glowing example in this recession caused by greed and shady business. They have a level of public trust matched only by Apple and Valve. Even if their ultimate aim is world domination and establishment of a New World Order, I can’t think of any other company I’d be happier to slave under.
For more information on Google and the nature of information searching I highly recommend John Battelle’s book The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, particularly Chapters 7 and 8 on Google’s ethics and public trust.