A year end invitation to discuss the global public relations attack against Google

I have no personal gripe with Google

If anything, as an intense yet only partial user of its many and increasing services, I am a satisfied consumer of Google.

This however does not necessarily imply that I am an ally.

You have surely realized over these recent weeks and months that Google is under an intense public relations attack globally driven by an explicit and implicit coalition of mainstream media and book publishers , of some of the major players of the traditional advertising industry as well as of fiscal authorities from various nation states.

In parallel, the anti-Google campaign is also indirectly fuelled by all the many luddite subjects around the world who openly or silently resist the sweeping power of the Internet in general.

Only today, Monday December 28, I read (but didn’t do a google news research..probably too much stuff..) two highly critical articles in the New York Times and the Corriere della Sera, the two most influential dailies in the Usa and Italy.

A coincidence?

Unlikely.

Mind you, not that the two publishers had agreed to come out the same day (we know that this happens often, but I doubt it in this case).

Yet, it is clear that all the possible arguments depicting Google from a critical perspective are circulating amongst publisher coalitions, advertising agency memoranda and in coffee shops where advocates from the first two interest groups meet legislators and fiscal experts from various countries.

So? Why should this blog care?

I submit that this is possibly one of the more interesting and articulate ‘nasty pr’ campaigns of recent history (I have decided to change the name from black to nasty since a vocal and very nice afro american student reminded me only a few days ago that by using the traditional term I was in fact encouraging an anti-afroamerican bias in the professional community…and I believe he is correct and thank him for that gentle reproach) and, as it is going on right now as we write, it is probably a good idea to invite our readers from around the world to voice their knowledge and opinions about this.

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22 Responses to “A year end invitation to discuss the global public relations attack against Google”
  1. Bruno Amaral says:

    Allow me to add something else to the discussion, this next year Google will finish the deployment of “caffeine” the new search and index infrastructure : http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2009/08/help-test-some-next-generation.html

    The NY Times article mentions that Google can make a website “disappear”, failing to mention that webmasters can be made aware of the issue using the google.com/webmasters tool.

    Also, to speak of search neutrality is to speak of the search algorithms that would have to be made public to prove that neutrality without a shadow of doubt.

    Most PR I see from the company is in fact user trainning, developer outreach programs and other very focused approaches. On the other hand, Google employees like Matt Cutts (http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/) do a great job in speaking for the company and communicating its values.

    I am not sure If we are indeed seeing an undercover and unethical PR campaign, but I believe Google allowed itself to grow trusting that the “do no evil” motto would suffice.

    If this is not ‘nasty pr’ it is at least a sign that the motto is no longer sufficient.

  2. This is a variant on the PR advice versus legal advice discussion.

    Google favours openness and this is an attractive position to take (‘information wants to be free’). Yet Google is a private business that profits from making information (books, news, commentary, music, images, information) more freely available.

    News Corp and the large publishers are seeking to protect their (intellectual) property so they can continue to profit from it. The protection of property rights is a fundamental tenet of liberal democracy.

    PR is a neutral agent that will be deployed on both sides of this argument – and both sides clearly have a strong case and will be able to do much to invoke public sentiment.

    In the end, victory will not depend on PR so much as on power.

  3. Not to take this discussion too overtly political, but there is an angle to the “Free” discussion that’s apropos, given the recent governmental actions into economic matters, especially in the US, but in Europe too.

    What is private property? If I write something, it is mine, unless I have written it for a client (in which case, it’s client property.)

    If we are to say, through force of law or regulation, that the writing is NOT private, there is an impact on all concepts of property.

    The Internet seems to delight in breaking the bonds of individual ownership in service to collective will (or collective profit, as the case may be). Napster. Bittorrent. How are aggregators different from Napster? It seems like we’re privileging entertainment media with rights of ownership but not other forms of media. Inconsistent.

    There have long been free sources of news — at least, free to the consumer. Radio news is free. TV news, for the 11% of the US without cable or satellite, is free. But the TV and radio stations have paid fees to someone for the right to broadcast news content (that is, until the Internet made it possible to just take someone else’s work and share it without paying.)

    Unless, of course, we’re all OK with the idea that no one really owns anything, but everyone owns everything.

  4. Bruno Amaral says:

    Sean, you have made a good point, but I am not sure the issue with the possibility of google being affected by a negative PR campaign reaches the question of property.

    It feels to be a question of how we have access to information: by means of a neutral search algorithm applied by search engines. Google’s market share allows it the possibility to skew results and even censor third-parties.

    Property rights do come into question if we look at google’s relationship with newspapers. On one hand google news does allow us to read articles with greater ease and on the other it may deprive newspapers of pageviews and most importantly ad-views. But If newspapers opt to block google’s indexing software, they lose organic visits derived from search…

    Google’s argument was that they do not have ads in the google news service, but these waters became murky a while back when they did indeed try to have google ads on google news results: http://googlenewsblog.blogspot.com/2009/02/ads-in-google-news-search-results.html

    jumping back into topic, Google needs to communicate intentions better and offer webmasters a clearer channel of communication. And governments can and should take a stand against malicious websites, who take advantage of unethical Search Engine Optimization (SEO) techniques to push their agenda forward. Right now, a webmaster applying unethical practices simply sees the website flagged by search engines and moves on to a new domain and repeats the procedure. If these actions were legislated, google, yahoo, bing and other search engines could move on to legal action.

    speaking against myself, there is a flaw in this reasoning: if legal action takes too long it will not deter unethical SEO.

  5. Paul Seaman says:

    Toni, you are behind the curve. As far back as 2005 the New York Times was publishing pieces such as “Relax, Bill Gates; It’s Google’s Turn as the Villain”.

    There’s something of the Barack Obama experience in Google – in the sense both are struggling to transition from campaigning upstart mode to functioning as world leaders.

    Just as I defended unlovable Microsoft at its peak (and still do) I defend the increasing unlovable Google today, up to a point Lord Copper.

    Hence, I say, let’s not be blind to real issues. Traditional values such as copyright, intellectual property, private property and privacy lie at the heart of value and freedom in the marketplace. That’s increasingly so in the so-called knowledge-driven post-industrial West. We allow our core values to be threatened at our collective peril.

    Google bucks many trends. Just as PRs tell us that share-price and shareholder value is not what should drive company strategy – at Google it does (top executives earn $1 per year or so and are rewarded in stock, not bonuses; lower grade staff are paid below market rates but get rich on stock etc.).

    Behind the relaxed facade of Google is a steely determination to hold on to its proprietary intellectual capital (why not?).

    There is something of the democratic centralist in Google’s openness that is almost Marxist, with the central committee at its core (all companies require leadership and I’m a fan of this approach, not a critic; though at Google read opaque for transparent).

    Google is as corporate as Microsoft (though perhaps not as organised; not yet anyway). Here’s one example of how Google’s relaxed culture backfired, revealing that underneath, when you dig deep, Google is as corporate and control-driven as any other corporation that values its reputation:

    http://news.cnet.com/8301-10784_3-9740090-7.html

    (Google’s response to this little crisis seems spot on to me).

    My last point is that popularity matters only up to a point, because being successful and unloved often go hand in hand. There’s not much one can do about it. So I say there’s no need to panic, so much as to manage and contain the issues that arise. Certainly, Barack Obama and Google make a good case studies in that regard.

    BTW: Here’s the NYT piece from 2005:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/24/technology/24valley.html

  6. I thank you all for your comments and references which should rejoyce anyone trying to understand what the issues at stake are.

    As much as I am in favour of limited private property, I do not believe that copyright and intellectual property should last beyond the life of the individual.
    When the individual becomes a corporation then it should not extend beyond then times the overall initial investment made.

    I know this is crazy in today’s world, but this is my upbringing…
    I distinctly remember William McKnight -the legendary founder of 3M Company- one stormy xmas night of 1965, met in a corridor of the executive floor of the giant corporation in St. Paul while I was waiting for my friend and colleague John Verstraete, global director of public relations, to retrieve his gifts to his many children which he had forgotten back in his office, telling me:
    ‘well Toni, looks like you and John and I are the only ones who really care….’
    but, most importantly, when our conversation addressed the issue of social wages and executive pay he said:
    ‘you know Toni, any company is wrotten if it starts paying its highest officer more than six (yes! six!) times what its lowest paid bluecollar earns’.

    Ok it was the sixties and, ok, maybe he was somewhat crazy… But I have never forgotten this (not that I have practiced it..mind you).

  7. Kristen E. Sukalac says:

    Toni — I think there are some basic issues that we as a society are grappling with regarding Microsoft, Google nad their ilk, and that is the definition of a monopoly or dominant position in the Information Age. When I read about these cases, I can’t help but think of the early 20th century Standard Oil anti-trust case. The company’s break-up was motivated not just by its supply of petroleum products, but also by its strong presence in the railroad infrastructure controlling the “flow” of that oil (and thus of its scarcity and pricing).

    While the articles that you cite may not be neutral, I don’t think they’re “dirty” PR. The NYT piece is an op-ed article, and its author is very clearly a direct stakeholder in this debate. I think it is absolutely critical that voices on both sides of a debate be heard when discussing such fundamental issues.

    The Corriere della Sera article on the other hand appears to be a news piece.

    For me, regulators need to be thinking about the following questions (among others):

    * Do these companies leave enough room for innovation, or do they crush it through a dominant market position? In the age of the internet it may be possible that innovation is best undertaken by small shops, but deployed by big groups. In which case, the model of acquiring innovation may be the optimal outcome for society.

    * How do the infrastructure services offered by such companies impact access to information? “Search neutrality” seems like a hopelessly naive ambition to me; the sophisticated algorithms being used today seem anything but neutral because they make assumptions about what people are searching for and what is “relevant”. Nonetheless, the accusations of the NYT op-ed article that certain products are at the top of the search results simply because they come from Google does evoke ghosts of Standard Oil.

    * What would be the impact of the catastrophic failure of a Google or Microsoft? Are they getting so big that their sudden disappearance could wreak wide-spread economic chaos? If so, it might be in the best interests of society to limit their reach.

  8. Kristen, I assure you that the Corriere della Sera was everything but a news piece.
    Authored by Massimo Mucchetti, deputy editor of Italy’s principal daily and positioned in the editorial pages it was only the fifth of recent anti-goolge articles, clearly supporting the policy that Italian publishers have been taking against Google in the last year or so (under fire in at least 5 different court cases in that country).

    Having said this I do not wish to take sides as I am not an expert. What I presume to be an expert on is in detecting an all out global advocacy campaign by vested interests (publishers and nation state tax authorities) against Google and I was hoping that visitors from outher parts of the world might wish to pick up this specific argument and describe how and if that campaign is also going on in their countries.
    A case of global advocacy for or against a global corporation which,as you suggest, more and more returns phantoms of the robber barons period, which is when public relations as a profession began…on the side of the barons of course!
    I guess I was not sufficiently convincing….

  9. Kristen E. Sukalac says:

    My apologies, Toni. I’ve gone back and done a more thorough read of the Corriere della Sera article.

    I agree with you that there is a lot of churn around Google, but isn’t that natural with such an omnipresent company? The United States also attracts a lot of passionate and often unflattering commentary. In both cases, reality is probably more nuanced than the dominant commentaries would imply. But the dominant commentaries need to counterbalance extremely influential entities.

    But isn’t that natural? The dominant player in any arena is usually more than capable of developing its own positive message, so mobilization will centre around counterbalancing those messages, not reinforcing them.

    The larger the body you try to move, the more friction it creates. For me, this is a question of system equilibrium.

    My question to you is: what makes you think that this phenomenon is due to a coordinated global advocacy campaign (which would require a level of skill and resources that I have trouble imagining) as opposed to the organic emergence of a large number of independent but intellectually related advocacy efforts?

  10. Quite the discussion here!

    Toni, if there is a campaign against Google, I doubt it’s coordinated. I agree with Kristen that it’s likely “organic.” That is, as Google becomes more than a search engine, a means of finding content of some kind, it risks alienating certain forces, including content providers. Its search algorithms are very effective indeed, provided the searcher has the wherewithal to separate seed from husk.

    Paul is correct that Google is supplanting Microsoft as a locus for hatred, but only among certain constituencies. Fortunately or unfortunately, the aggrieved have a lot of content that people want access to.

    I have to disagree, Toni, that the opposition to Google is “nasty PR” — there is a legitimate beef here. Google presents itself as a neutral search engine, but it’s really not neutral at all, as the NYT op-ed details. By acting as gatekeeper (especially to the extent of moving its own services to the top of search results) it’s forfeiting its claim to neutrality. If, as averred, it deliberately excludes search content without disclosure, it deserves to be called out.

  11. Kristen, Sean,
    as for the indications that we are assisting to a coordinated effort I ask you to do a quick news search over the last few months. Particularly in the editorial, op-ed and financial comment pages of the worlds major dailies and weeklies. IN many occasions over these last fifty years I ahve found myself involved in global advocacy campaigns on behalf or against many of the major corporations and issues (health, security, copyright, philantropy, pbucli funds to ngo’s etc…), and was always surprised by the breadth of the coverage through the use of public relations networks in various countries. The tobacco industry acivities in this area are well documented, with original scripts and briefs as it was obliged by the us government to post all of its international documents. For example if you go to http://www.pmdocs.com you will easily find these papers. The same goes for alcoholic products, issues like obesity et al.
    I am not sure we are in this situation concerning google. But I am sure that there are many signs in this direction and I am also sure of the fiscal issues Google has with many member states of the EU as well as its fight with the Murdochs and all publishing associations who are filing law suits in many countries.
    I take it that the term ‘nasty’ does not reasonate with my commenters.
    Whta I mean is that pr is usually domne to reinforce, to bridge, to create relations rather than to attack others.
    ok?

  12. Toni – understood. Certainly the ideal definition of PR would be as you describe.

    If indeed there is a coordinated effort to take on (or down) Google, who is leading it? At a previous employer, we worked on an ally development program patterned after an effort by a major trade organization — we certainly sought to educate this audience and activate them to write letters to the editor, etc., and had some success at it. That said, it was mighty hard to get that group to do much of anything. If a set of competitor content providers are banding together to crush Google — that’s got to be a different process than activating retirees to support legislative change, no?

    The media are so disorganized (hence my thought that there is neither a right-wing or left-wing media conspiracy in the US), I can’t imagine they’re able to climb this mountain. Perhaps I’m naive…

    If we are going to have gatekeepers in the news (in particular), I’d prefer it be professional journalists and editors rather than algorithms.

    Good conversation!

  13. Paul Seaman says:

    It’s war! And war is the locomotive of history (a prize to the person who can tell me who said that first). Here’s the link to today’s piece in the WSJ on the battle between Amazon, Apple and Google:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704842604574642473386971690.html?mod=dist_smartbrief

  14. João Duarte says:

    And here’s another recent development which might add to this: google is getting ready to sell energy

    http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/07/google-applies-to-become-power-marketer/

    And here’s an interview with the “Green Czar” at Goolge
    http://greeninc.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/07/qa-googles-green-energy-czar/

  15. I am inclined to agree with Toni that there is some orchestration going on regarding the reputational damage currently being inflicted on Google, but that said, the organisation is not helping itself. Ostensibly, the provision of a ‘free’ service has meant that consumers have been patient with the length of time it takes Google to respond (always by email) to queries and problems. Not so with the launch of Nexus One, where people have paid for a product but are still expected to hang around and wait for an email response. Google isn’t geared up for customer service in the same way it is geared up for search. The switch from gatekeeper/information source (however erratic, dominant or biased that might be) to system and product supplier is going to do more harm than any orchestrated campaign and may just be the self-administered shot in the foot that Google’s opponents have been hoping for as, in the end, it will be far more effective in diminishing Google-power than nasty mainstream news coverage.

    Richard was right when he said that in the end victory will depend on power and Bruno’s point that Google needs to communicate its intentions better was right on the nail. So far it has concentrated communications efforts through its blogs and direct mechanisms, which is fine if you are just in the search business, not so good when your product offering has diversified to the extent that Google’s has – a diversification driven by the imperative of the real-time web.

    Google is to be praised for its innovation and adaptability in the last decade but in 2010 and beyond, its reliability across a huge product portfolio will be under scrutiny. Kristen’s observation concerning the possibility of a Google melt-down is very astute – look at the panic and problems that have ensued when gmail has gone down for a while. As ‘free’ operating systems become entrenched as the norm, so our dependency on one organisation sitting on and hoarding our informational gold intensifies. That much power is likely to come under attack quite regularly, either fragmented or orchestrated. Interestingly though, the information can ‘disappear’ as quickly as it is produced in this environment as anyone involved in search engine operations will tell you. The possibility of such Orwellian revisionism may allow Google to stay comfortable and cosy regardless of critical commentary. Who knew the world would ultimately be controlled by mathematically-inclined librarians?

    PS: Paul – Google says Trotsky and if you have a dig about in the PRC archives, we had a conversation here about the potential for a Google and Facebook backlash a couple of years ago that you might find interesting.

  16. Kristen E. Sukalac says:

    I am beginning to think we might have theological differences here parallel to views on the origins of life: some say that life (read: the Google conspiracy) is too complicated to have been designed and must therefore be a result of chance; others say that it is too complicated not to have been designed!

  17. João Duarte says:

    Maybe it’s not about an orchestrated campaign but a merely about a convergence of public and media agendas in order to achieve critical mass.

    Anyway, here are 2 additional examples. Read the final paragraph of this article http://tinyurl.com/yh9m6b4 mentioning the cases of Google-tax in France and a possible legal action against Google on the issue of personal data protection in Germany.

  18. Kristen E. Sukalac says:

    Hi Joao, Just as a point of clarification, the so-called “Google tax” in France would actually apply to ALL search engines. Briefly, the idea behind it is that search engines are displacing advertising revenue from destination websites (which are subject to income tax on their ad revenues) to search engine sites (which are not, at least not locally). The point of the “Google tax” is for the state to claw back this lost tax revenue.

  19. It is worth taking a look at the two links below in the light of this discussion, one from January 06 when Google launched in China and one from yesterday when they began the process of taking their bat and ball away – or maybe just demonstrating how much power they wield, in the same way that newspaper tycoons have rattled their sabres in previous years in China. Also worth looking at – in the context of our discussion – are the comments and trackbacks.

    http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2006/01/google-in-china.html
    http://googlepublicpolicy.blogspot.com/2010/01/new-approach-to-china.html

    I think it is interesting to note that alongside the ‘concern’ over access to emails etc., top of the story was the theft of intellectual property from Google.

  20. Paul Seaman says:

    Toni, here’s Andrew Keen lambasting your conspiratorial take on the world (not just about Google). I rate Andrew as one of the sharpest minds (though I sometimes criticize him too!)out there on all things digital.

    “As the Internet has become more and more of a central political issue in American life, so the paranoid style has, unfortunately, begun to infect our public discussion about technology and media. Much of this paranoia focuses on the supposed selfishly monopolistic intentions of mainstream media which, for many otherwise sane people, represents a deadly threat against the so-called “people’s Internet”. Thus, from Rupert Murdoch’s obstinate determination to protect the economic value of his content on the Internet to Bono’s latest defense of intellectual property to the perpetual hysteria around the Network Neutrality debate, any criticism of piracy or defense of paid content is viewed in the darkest and most apocalyptical terms by paranoid advocates of an “open” and “free” Internet.” More….

    http://www.techcrunch.com/2010/01/16/paranoid-tv-everywhere/

  21. I would hate for the long tail to even slightly hint that I may be numbered amongst those who nurture a paranoic and ‘conspiratorial take on the world’ (about anything, let alone Gooogle…).

    I have not claimed that the was a ‘conspiracy against Google’ simply because what appears to me (more so every day) a concerted ‘nasty’ public relations campaign by vested interests attempting to delay or reduce the global googleization of knowledge is not, in my view, a ‘conspiratorial take’ but simply a fact of life.

    My post intended to analyse this presumed campaign leveraging on the fact that we have ‘learned’ visitors from all over the world.

    Clearly I did not explain myself in full (not even in part, for that matter).
    best

  22. Kristen E. Sukalac says:

    To come back to the Google debate, here is the link to Google’s reaction to the Italian verdict handed down in Milan today: http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/02/serious-threat-to-web-in-italy.html.

    I picked this up on Twitter thanks to @Scobleizer

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