When Google Did Evil

Turning points. If you look at any person, company, or organization you'll find a key moment that sent that entity down a particular path, be it good or bad.

It might be a chance meeting between two people, like when Steve Jobs met Steve Wozniak, or a decision, like when Larry Page and Sergey Brin realized they needed "adult supervision" in the form of Eric Schmidt, or an infinite array of other situations that can define or redefine someone's life or the direction of a company.

Don't Be Evil, Unless It's Profitable

For Google, a company whose motto is "Don't be evil," I think there was just such a moment, a turning point where the company turned to evil. That moment was when Google decided to promote its own services in search results when its own algorithms deemed that information less relevant or useful.

Google Motto

That was a bad decision. It was ethically and morally bankrupt, and it ended up being bad for Google's business, too. It's also at the heart of Google's ongoing fight with European antitrust regulators (and politicians and competitors) and could cost the search giant big time in fines. It has even tarnished Google's reputation.

Bloomberg published an outstanding in-depth look at Google's fight with Europe that focuses on the parties involved, and Google's many challenges in fighting antitrust charges across the pond. Those problems started when Google began repressing competing services or artificially boosting its own above its rivals.


Some will argue that Google has the right to do such things. After all, people are free to use another search engine—and in the U.S., Google apparently does indeed have that right. The Federal Trade Commission voted unanimously in 2013 not to charge Google even though the FTC's own investigation found the company manipulated search results to promote its services at the expense of its rivals.

As Bloomberg noted, U.S. regulators have been focused almost exclusively on consumers, rather than competition, when it comes to antitrust. Another good example of this is the DOJ going after Apple for iBooks when a competing monopolist was dumping books to maintain its 90 percent share of the ebook market. The DOJ made consumer price the only factor in pursuing that case, ignoring the rest of the market.

I agree that most companies have the right to promote their own services or products rather than their competitors. That right gets fuzzy, though, when a company gains dominance—or worse, monopoly power—in a market.

European regulators feel the same way. Shivaun Raff, the co-owner of a small shopping comparison site that was artificially suppressed by Google, put it this way to Bloomberg: "Under European law, being dominant is not a problem at all, but once you are dominant you have a special responsibility not to crush the remaining competition in the market."

In a word, yep. And that's why I think Google's decision was a turning point and the moment when the company violated its own motto. Google took over search by doing search better than everyone. Google earned our trust by being honest. Abusing that trust to gain unearned share in new markets is just a crappy, bottom feeder thing to do. It's downright Microsoftian.

Which may be ironic in that Microsoft most likely led the campaign to get EU regulators to crack down on Google, but that's a rabbit hole for another time.

Do the Right Thing

The decision to ignore what its own algorithms said about the quality and value of its content, and promote that content anyway, was a bad decision. Google should have used that information to improve those services. As the dominant search engine in the U.S. and Europe (Google's share is higher in Europe than the U.S.), the company has an obligation to give us results that aren't tainted by its own agenda.

If you are interested in this topic, I strongly recommend Bloomberg's piece. It's a solid piece of journalism packed with information and revelations.