Growing Up Google

August 24, 2011 Topics: EthicsIdeologyTechnology

Growing Up Google

Mini Teaser: Two young geniuses found a company. They build the greatest search engine ever. But they are greedy and petulant. They believe themselves infallible and unstoppable. Now they are under assault. Is it time to bid Google goodbye?

by Author(s): Nicholas Carr

EDWARDS’S STORY ends when he leaves the company on March 4, 2005. In the six years since, Google has become the web’s default clearinghouse and principal tollgate. As people spend more time and do more things online, they also do more Google searches and click on more Google ads—and the business’s coffers swell. But the company’s recent history is not quite as buoyant as its bottom line suggests. While it has introduced several attractive products, such as the Android operating system for cell phones and the Google Apps suite of cloud-computing programs, it has failed to discover strong new sources of profits. Many of its most hyped services—Google Base, Google Wave, Google Buzz, Google Health—have fizzled. Designed by engineers, they proved too complicated for mere mortals. Its ambitious Google Books initiative has become mired in a quagmire of litigation, due in part to Page’s arrogance in rushing to scan copyrighted books without first seeking their owners’ permission.

The company has also come in for ethical criticism, which must be particularly irksome to its high-minded founders. When Google disclosed that it was censoring results for searches in China, in response to pressure from the government, it suffered withering criticism. It later reversed course and shut down its Chinese search engine. It has also displayed a cavalier attitude toward cultural sensitivities, particularly when it comes to safeguarding personal privacy. When it sent camera-equipped cars down streets in Europe to assemble a database of images for its Street View mapping service, the move sparked widespread public protests and, in Germany, a criminal inquiry. There are companies with worse records than Google when it comes to exploiting personal data and kowtowing to authoritarian regimes. But when you’ve publicly pledged to “make money without doing evil,” you shouldn’t be surprised to be held to a high standard.

Google is now trying to mend some of its overseas rifts with a time-tested strategy: using big investments to curry favor with local authorities. As the New York Times reported earlier this year, it has sent top executives to European countries to “dispense chunks of the company’s $36 billion in cash reserves.” In Ireland, which is struggling to emerge from a profound economic slump, Google bought a large Dublin office building from a government agency charged with cleaning up bad real-estate loans. In France, it is setting up a European cultural center in its new Paris headquarters, the former home of the insurance giant AXA. In Germany, it is funding the establishment of an academic institute in Berlin that will study online privacy and other Internet issues. Throughout the job-strapped continent, it is ratcheting up its hiring, having announced plans to add one thousand European employees this year alone.

The largest and most ominous challenge facing the company, though, comes from its own Silicon Valley backyard. The recent rise of vast, self-contained social networks is changing the way people use the net, making them less reliant on traditional search engines for finding information. Ambitious, fleet-footed companies like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Groupon have begun to make Google look like a wallflower. While the company’s brilliance at crunching numbers and building elaborate computer systems remains unquestioned, its lack of social skills threatens to become a major competitive liability.

Of course, the influx of nimble new competitors also makes the timing of the antitrust investigations seem a little ironic. Some observers argue that the FTC’s probe may in fact be a signal that Google’s influence has already peaked. They point out that the United States filed its antitrust suit against Microsoft in 1998, the exact moment when power in the computer business began ebbing away from the PC giant and toward innovative Internet companies like Google. It’s important to recognize, however, that Google’s worldwide dominance in web search remains overwhelming, and despite its recent stumbles, it continues to roll out new services intended to pull web users back into its fold. This summer, it launched a new social network, Google+, that will take on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. And it has been testing a coupon service, called Google Offers, aimed directly at Groupon’s business. If, as critics allege, Google tweaks its search algorithm to give undue precedence to its own sites and services, it could sway the future of many online markets, to its own benefit.

In April, Larry Page was named Google’s chief executive. He replaced Eric Schmidt, a tech-industry veteran who had been hired years earlier to provide Page and Brin with, as Schmidt himself put it, “adult supervision.” Page takes command at a crucial moment for Google—and the Internet writ large. The way he responds to the antitrust investigations, to the company’s aggressive new rivals, and to persistent public concerns about online privacy and security will determine whether Google flourishes or flounders in the years ahead. His success will likely hinge on his ability to get beyond a black-and-white, us-versus-them view of the challenges facing his company, to realize that even “bastards” may have a point. He’ll have to become a little less Googley and a little more worldly.

Edwards begins his book with an anecdote about a meeting he had with Page back in 2002. Bruised by the founder’s tendency to dismiss or ignore his suggestions, Edwards comes to Page’s office to offer an olive branch and try to ingratiate himself with his prickly boss. “I know I haven’t always agreed with the direction you and Sergey have set for us,” he says. “But I’ve been thinking about it and I just wanted to tell you that, in looking back, I realize that more often than not you’ve been right about things.” Page looks up from his computer screen, a befuddled expression on his face. “More often than not?” he replies. “When were we ever wrong?”

Hubris is Page’s, and Google’s, defining flaw. Whether it is a tragic flaw remains to be seen

Pullquote: It becomes clear that, for all Google’s praiseworthy qualities, the company is hampered by a narrow perspective and an insular culture.Image: Essay Types: Book Review