What Should Google Do?

This morning in Mountain View, California a group of Google executives will be meeting for the third day in a row to figure out how to respond to a devastating indictment delivered in the New York Times expose yesterday.  Sometime on Friday Google got word that the Times would run a major story on how easy it is to “game” Google to get favorable placement in search results.  So this morning one big question is: what will Google do?

That expose proved that JC Penney, a large but desperate national retailer, hired “black hat” search engine experts to game Google and move JC Penney products into the top organic search result for everything from ankle socks to zebra blankets.   The New York Times investigative team proved that a major national retailer could game Google and end up in the top organic rankings, and as a result, reap millions of dollars in new business.

JC Penney did this by buying links back into their content from secret networks that set up “link farms” Websites that exist only to link back into JC Penney merchandise.  The link farmers make perhaps $200 a month adding these links to their innocuous sites, but the result could be millions and millions of additional business to JC Penney because having those links “proves” to Google that this JC Penney dress or that JC Penney frying pan is truly valued by independent sources on the Internet.

This is the tip of the iceberg for Google.  They’ve built a business that produces almost $2 million in revenue per employee by being the place to go to search for anything in the world.  Some of the time our searches are “informational,” and Google steers us to Wikipedia or another neutral source to explain who Winston Churchill was.

But the other half of searches are “commercial and those come about when I need a roof rake or a Mini Cooper or full-lined handcuffs.  And here Google starts to look like the Mubarak regime in Egypt—buttoned up, but rotten to the core.

Did Google give JC Penney a free pass on its “black hat” gaming of search results because it also spends $2 billion in advertising with Google each ear for paid ad placements?  Google’s problem is that no public relations campaign will sweep away the stench of corruption—JC Penney was allowed to use black hat search engine optimization resources because JC Penney was a big customer of Google.

Google’s problem is not unlike Microsoft’s monopoly over PC operating systems and applications.  This is because the economic principles that drive software is different from cars.  A monopoly of car production is bad for everyone’s business.  But a monopoly for a software platform actually turns out to be good for business because we don’t all have to re-invent the wheel.  We just buy Windows 98 or Windows XP or Windows 7, and we’re good.  We can inter-operate.  The cost of each incremental copy is almost nothing.  Software monopolies can be very good for an economy–if they’re managed the right way.

Google is a software monopoly. We the people don’t want five or six competing search engines.  We want one search engine that works really well.   Now Google rises from a grown up venture capital start-up to a central utility that business cannot do without.  Google has become Ma Bell.

Back in the middle 20th century there was a company formerly called AT&T that had an almost total monopoly on all telephone service in the United States.  We called this company “Ma Bell.”   Ma Bell was heavily regulated and held to very high quality standards.  For example, uptime had to be 99.96%.  That is, you had to be able to rely on your home phone service to work 99.96% of the time.

Google lately keeps trying to get into brand extension businesses, and this is precisely the wrong thing for them to be doing in the middle of the JC Penney crisis.  They shouldn’t be trying to become a content company or a big applications provider.  All these line extensions take them away from the fundamental reason Google exists.

Google should step up and admit that they have become the central search engine for the entire Internet.  They should focus on that—and nothing else.

Nothing.  Else.

What should Google do? If Google commits to this laser focus, we the people will allow Google to organize the Internet for us.

But to do that Google has to fulfill five mandates:

  1. Transparency – like a government, Google has to make public as much of its operations as it can without compromising the “secret sauce” of rankings.  Be clear and be true about how you rank things on the Internet.
  2. Secrecy—Google still has to keep absolutely silent about how it chooses to determine organic rankings and the “value” of paid search content.  Keep the “Coca-Cola formula” secret.
  3. Policing – Most important, Google has to police the way companies engage and are ranked within search results.  This policing has to be very much like the judicial branch of a government.  They need to police, arrest, try and convict those who would “game” the system.
  4. Intelligence—Google has to be smarter than the rest of us.  The very smartest people have to work at Google to ensure that Google will always be smarter than the crooks, including those crooks among their best customers—-like JC Penney.
  5. Focus—Google can’t do anything other than be the greatest search engine in the world.  This is Google’s mission in our world.  Whenever Google begins to think about getting into other lines of business it must stop and re-focus on being the fulcrum of all intelligence.  If Google does this and nothing else it can become one of the central institutions for all thought and exchange.  God bless, I wish I had a job like that.

The JC Penney scandal has come at the most appropriate time.  We’re right at the point where online advertising is eclipsing newspaper advertising,  and now search engine marketing—both SEO and PPC—is becoming the point of origin for most consumer shopping journeys.

Google has to step up beyond being a great company run well.   It now owns a monopoly on our organization, and that demands Google be better than a corporation.

Google has to become our online government.

Whatever the response this week from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, what matters more is our response. We need to condemn anything blather from Google that is small, operational and dismissive.  We need Google to step up to a mandate much more important than that.  If the Google management team accepts this larger, altruistic mandate they will create the central search function that is truthful, reliable and extensible into the future.

For Google this means a laser focus on one idea:

Do No Evil.

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About Rohn Jay Miller

I'm a strategic designer who works with clients who are transforming their business models because of change brought on by the Internet. Solving disruption is often a problem and an opportunity at the same time. Previously I was a founding partner of Ikonic/USWeb in San Francisco, and Senior Vice President--Product & Technology for Knight Ridder in San Jose.

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