Is the bubble about to burst for Google?

Google has been blessed with some of the most positive press in the computing scene, but is this and its success likely to change anytime soon?

'Don't Be Evil'. The slogan has served Google well over the last decade. Since the company's inception at Stanford, California in 1995 to today's multi-billion-dollar concern, Google's unique business culture has resulted in a largely positive press. But can this love affair with the media, computer buffs and industry insiders alike be sustained, or is the bubble about to burst? Let's take a look at how Google grew to be so well appreciated, and why this may soon change.

Google's founders, Ph.D students Larry Page and Sergey Brin, began not by spotting a gap in the market, but in identifying a weakness in the rapidly-growing internet. At the time, searching the net's already-burgeoning mass of information was a problematic exercise. The search engines of the day performed poorly, producing masses of results which often buried the useful sites under a rockslide of trivial or barely-relevant material. Page and Brin set to work on the problem, and came up with a solution that was brilliant in its simplicity...

Where previous efforts ranked sites according to how many times a searched-for term cropped up, their own search engine also checked backlinks to estimate a site's importance. The pages with the most backlinks were deemed the most important ones. They were right. Google was soon the most popular search engine on the web.

Plaudits soon followed. While Google.com was still in beta, it was answering 10,000 searches a day and articles about Google appeared in USA Today and Le Monde. In December 1998, PC Magazine named Google as one of its top 100 web sites and search engines. Further expansion has brought Google searches to mobile devices, incorporated Deja.com's vast archive of newsgroup posts under the Google umbrella and inspired a free software bundle that brought open-source applications to the newbie masses. And this was just the beginning.

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The media plaudits soon came thick and fast. In 1999, Google won a technical excellence award for innovation in web application development from PC Magazine, and was included in several 'best of' lists, culminating with Google's appearance on Time magazine's top ten best cybertech list. The site was awarded both a Webby Award and a People's Voice Award for technical achievement in May 2000. The founders' unpretentious, five-word acceptance speech, "We love you, Google users", did much to endear them to the computer-using population. And as the company grew, the positive press just kept on coming...

So how did Google achieve and, more importantly sustain, such positive press coverage? At the heart of the company's success is its laid-back office culture, with its distinct lack of corporate pretentiousness having a knock-on effect on the way Google interacts with the rest of the world. When the company moved into its new office building known as the Googleplex, large rubber exercise balls were used as highly mobile office chairs to maximise the flexibility of the workspace. In Google's earliest days, desks were wooden doors mounted on two sawhorses. Some of these are still in use within the engineering group. Google's directors sat around a ping pong table during board meetings. Large dogs were allowed to roam the halls, and sections of the car park are roped off for twice-weekly games of roller hockey. Other recreational facilities include a workout room with weights and a rowing machine, locker rooms, washers and dryers, a massage room, assorted video games, football, a baby grand piano, a pool table and ping pong. Presumably on the boardroom table.

But maybe more than this, Google's popular catchphrase 'Don't be Evil' seems more than a marketing man's brainwave. It's a philosophy that has underpinned everything Google has done in the last decade, with the interests of its users always held as more important than short-term financial or corporate gain. But how long can this culture be sustained? Will Google, in the words of the Sydney Morning Herald, 'outgrow its fans', and will recent and potential controversies shake the ordinary computer users' belief in this now-giant corporation?

The search engineThe Google search engine has found itself the subject of a number of controversies over the last few years. In January 2006 Google affirmed its intent to filter certain keywords given to it by the Chinese government for searches carried out using its Chinese domain, Google.cn. This has not gone down well in the West. In the US, Democrat congressman Tom Lantos said of Google among other tech companies, "Your abhorrent activities in China are a disgrace. I simply do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night". Google vice president Elliot Schrage replied: "The requirements of doing business in China include self-censorship - something that runs counter to Google's most basic values and commitments as a company".

As the largest search engine on the web, it was inevitable that Google would get most of the flak over censorship in China, but criticisms of the company aren't entirely justified. However unpalatable, Google claims the move was necessary to prevent the Chinese government from blocking the site entirely. Google is not the only search engine which censors results in China, though it's the only one whose searches carry a message informing the user when results have been censored. And as one Chinese Blogger put it, 'censorship is a fact of life in China and Google could not have done any better'.

It wasn't the first time Google was criticised for apparent censorship either. In October 2002, Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin Edelman from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at the Harvard Law School published a study reporting the sites that had been quietly censored by the German and French sections of Google. They were mainly extreme right-wing and radical Islamic sites. Also in 2002, it was found that Google censored web sites that provided critical information about Scientology, in compliance with the US legislation designed to protect copyright. As Google itself put it, "We removed certain specific URLs in response to a notification submitted by the Religious Technology Centre and Bridge Publications under section 512(c)(3) of the the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). Had we not removed these URLs, we would be subject to a claim for copyright infringement, regardless of its merits".

As irony would have it, Google had previously been criticised for not censoring search results. In April 2004, it was revealed that searches for the term 'Jew' offered the anti-Semitic site Jew Watch as its top hit. The following month, Steven Weinstock launched an online petition to remove Jew Watch from Google, attracting attention to his campaign through a widely-circulated email. Google declined (except in Canada, where its retention would breach local laws), but instead offered a disclaimer above the search results. "If you recently used Google to search for the word 'Jew', you may have seen results that were very disturbing", it begins. "We assure you that the views expressed by the sites in your results are not in any way endorsed by Google. We'd like to explain why you're seeing these results when you conduct this search." The disclaimer goes on to explain how the search algorithm works, and can be read in full at www.google.com/explanation.html.

Censorship issues aside, the Google search engine has also been criticised for being vulnerable to spamdexing or Google bombing, whereby search results can be manipulated by web sites which use underhand tactics to inflate their profile. However, as these techniques are developed specifically to make use of the net's biggest search engine, it's hardly surprising Google is in some way vulnerable to such tactics.

Gmail - Google MailGmail, known as Google Mail in the UK and Germany, revolutionised web-based email. With its massive storage capacity of 1GB at launch which has since been expanded to 2GB, it offered a lot more space than its rivals such as Hotmail and Yahoo Mail. But the service has not been spared its share of controversy.

Gmail's privacy policy has been criticised. Google's plans to fund the service with context-sensitive adverts similar to those used by the search engine led to an outcry from some users, who felt their privacy could be compromised. To assign adverts, individual emails must be scanned and analysed by Google's software, a situation with which not everyone was happy. Perhaps more seriously, quoted email from non-subscribers is also read, even though the person that originally sent it is not a Gmail user and did not agree to the service's terms and conditions.

However, most users seem perfectly happy with the service. Private Gmails are only ever scanned for keywords by a computer, and never read by a human Google employee. Thus it could be argued that Google's context-sensitive adverts are no more a privacy risk than a spam trap, which also scans incoming emails for key words and acts on them accordingly.

Perhaps a little more worrying is what Google could do with this information should it be retained. It's technically possible for Google to combine information contained in a person's emails with information about their Internet searches, and it's not known how long such information would be kept and how it could be used. A group of privacy advocates and civil rights organisations have written an open letter to Google, urging them to suspend the Gmail service until these issues are resolved. Read it at www.privacyrights.org/ar/GmailLetter.htm.

The YouTube takeoverGoogle has already faced copyright issues, with a handful of content providers complaining about textual summaries or individual pictures appearing in web searches. Such complaints seem churlish when you consider that you can prevent your site appearing in Google searches with a simple piece of HTML code, but Google's purchase of YouTube could open the door for much more credible complaints.

YouTube is no stranger to copyright complaints. Back in Winter 2005, NBC Universal ordered the video-hosting site to remove material for which it held the copyright, including the famous 'Lazy Sunday' sketch from Saturday Night Live and clips of the Olympics. To avoid future problems, YouTube limited uploaded videos to ten minutes in length. In a case that has yet to be resolved, TV journalist Robert Tur is claiming $150,000 for each upload of a news clip to which he holds the rights, most notably the beating of trucker Reginald Denny during the 1992 riots in Los Angeles.

YouTube's copyright problems aren't going to disappear any time soon, but it must be noted its spectacular success has inspired a change of attitude among many entertainment companies. For example, the aforementioned NBC Universal has now entered into a partnership with the site, setting up an NBC channel to showcase its programmes such as The Office. As CBS' president of CBS News and Sports Sean McManus stated on CBSNews.com, "Our inclination now is, the more exposure we get from clips like that, the better it is for CBS News and the CBS television network, so in retrospect we probably should have embraced the exposure, and embraced the attention it was bringing CBS, instead of being parochial and saying 'let's pull it down'." Even companies which haven't given their explicit approval for content inclusion tend to turn a blind eye to its use, seeing it as free publicity rather than copyright infringement. Naturally, this is an attitude which sits very well with Google's corporate philosophy.

But not all criticisms of YouTube hinge on copyright. An article on ITV News in June 2006 accused the site of encouraging bullying, with fights and 'happy slapping' incidents filmed on mobile phones uploaded to the site. Another unsavoury clip involved two girls sitting on a children's roundabout while a couple of boys span it using the rear wheel of a motorcycle, causing the girls to fly off it.

Finally, although YouTube removes blatantly pornographic material, it's left to the users to identify 'acceptable' material that might not be suitable for minors and highlight it as such. And yet when so labelled, it only takes a click of the mouse to reach it anyway.

It's not difficult to imagine how issues such as these might come to reflect badly on the site's new owners, Google. This is one area it really needs to keep a close eye on.

Corporate ComplaintsGoogle is founded on a philosophy of avoiding a stifling corporate office culture, but some have argued the company is heading in exactly this direction. As Gary Rivlin of the New York Times put it, "Silicon Valley, which for years hungered for company mighty enough to best Microsoft, now frets that phenomenally-successful Google may be moving away from entrepreneurial culture that produced it, toward corporate culture that some consider arrogant". In a Fortune magazine interview, Bill Gates argues that Google is more like Microsoft than any other competitor.

In an article in the Sydney Morning News entitled 'Search giant may outgrow its fans', Owen Gibson and Richard Wray report that in computing circles, "Google is attracting unfamiliar epithets such as 'arrogant'. Salaries in Silicon Valley have soared as a high-spending Google attracts the best talent, including Dr Kai-Fu Lee, the developer of MSN's search engine, whose poaching from the Seattle-based software giant attracted a lawsuit. Gibson and Wray also argue "Dotcom start-ups are finding it difficult to persuade potential financial backers their prospective markets will not be squashed by the might of Google".

But are these really damning indictments of a company that's losing touch with its roots and becoming exactly what it once sought to avoid? Or is it a mixture of moaning from competitors and the inevitable result of having grown so large? We suspect the latter. As Gibson and Wray put it, "There is a significant crop of sour grapes in the mix, not helped by news that Google is selling a further $4 billion worth of shares to fill a war chest." As Google is a huge employer (9,378 staff as of September 30th 2006), it's inevitable it will attract talent from other companies. Their desire to go would suggest the appealing, non-corporate office culture is still there.

And haven't start-ups always had trouble convincing investors they're able to enter the market and make a profit? Remember, Google owes no competitor, start-up or otherwise, an open door and a welcome mat. Until the search-engine giant starts using sharp business practices of the sort Microsoft is frequently accused, this argument just won't wash.

So, will the bubble burst?In a nutshell, we doubt it. Most of the criticisms levelled at Google over the last few years are nuisance complaints blown out of all proportion, or charges levelled at the company by its enemies.

If Google repeats its sacred mantra of 'Don't be Evil' and keeps its eye on the ball, we see few problems in the PR department for the foreseeable future.

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