Google: Don't Be Evil

Google’s stated corporate motto is “Don’t Be Evil”. Of course that opens the door to a lot of questions. The first and probably most important of those is, who gets to decide what’s evil. The obvious answer is Google itself. There isn’t a handbook anywhere that dictates good and evil for an enterprise like Google, unless Google wrote it. As such, their corporate motto means virtually nothing. In fact, it means they could actually be doing things quite evil while defining them as good. I’d like to take an actual look at some of Google’s activities and revisit that motto.

Google’s primary function is search. They started out as a search engine, and that’s what they’re still doing today. People search for things on the World Wide Web, and Google serves up search results. Google is more or less free to define the criteria they use to return results, but one would assume they would rank more popular (more searches, more links) sites ahead of less popular sites.

In 2014, Google decided that secure sites were “better” than non-secure sites. In other words, if your site was reached by https:// rather than http://, it was “better”. A lot of supposed experts decided that this was also true, and began encouraging people to purchase certificates and turn their sites into secure ones. This was considered “best practice”. I won’t argue the wisdom of this, but I will say that for a tremendous number of sites, it’s simply overkill. Of course, Google is free to prefer anything they like. But in 2014, they began to prefer secure sites to unsecure sites in search. So if your site is only reachable by an http:// URL, your search rankings automatically drop.

Now, let me ask you something. If no one had ever pointed out the difference between secure and unsecure sites, would you care? Would you take extra time and effort to see that the URLs that come up in search results are secured? Would you actually consider a secure site more competent, more business-worthy than one not secured? Yet Google seems to think that, despite your probable lukewarm reaction to secure vs.¬†unsecure, it has a duty to ensure that your site follows “best practice”. Let’s remember here, Google is the 800 pound gorilla of search. It is one thing for Google to suggest something. But by altering their search engine to prefer one thing over another, it more or less enforces it on the web. Suddenly a search engine, meant to catalog the Web based on what people search for, is dictating content. Interesting. Makes one wonder, are there limits to what Google can/will dictate?

In the last few years, there has been a significant increase in the use of handheld devices to access the Web. That’s iPhones, iPads, Android devices, etc., as opposed to desktop and laptop computers. This increase in Web access by these devices also means that searches are being done more and more from these devices. It has long been asserted by web designers that when building websites, we accommodate mobile devices in addition to regular computers. If you’ve ever looked at a website on a mobile device, you’ll notice that it may look quite a bit different on a mobile device than it does on your desktop computer. The trick that web designers try to pull off is to build a site which accommodates both, perhaps as separate pages for the same base page on your desktop. If artfully done, the result is more or less seamless to the user, but provides a more satisfactory experience on mobile or handheld devices. Of course, as the owner of a site, you are free to decide whether you want to pay a designer to add this mobile capability to your site. The alternative would be a site that doesn’t look that good on a handheld device, and may need to be scrolled quite a bit, something difficult on a mobile device.

On 21 April 2015, Google determined that it would increase search rankings for sites designed for mobile, when searched by mobile devices. So if you had a site designed for mobile viewing, and it got searched for by a mobile device, it would rank higher. More “best practices”, folks. By now, the power of Google to dictate web content and design should be obvious. Simply by saying, “We think websites should be done this way”, and then enforcing it by tweaking their search engine to enforce this, they now force this change on all the web.

Should you be asked your preferences on this matter? You’re free to ask your designer to update your site for mobile use. Or not. Oh, except that Google has, by its very weight, more or less commanded that you do it their way.

So here we have a search engine dictating content again. Is there an end to this?

On 9 June 2016, SourceFed, a comedic news channel on Youtube, accidentally discovered that Google was slanting search results in favor of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The following two links detail the research they did and describe in better detail than I could how this was done.

Whether SourceFed was qualified to do such research is beside the point. The research appears to be solid and as of this date (21 June 2016) more research is planned. In any case, the results were unquestionable. In addition, they also tracked down people (including the Chairman of Google’s parent company, Eric Schmidt) who were connected to Hillary otherwise, who not only had a vested interest in Hillary’s election, but had the ability to dictate Google’s conduct. While they didn’t accuse anyone in particular of any wrong doing, the political connection was clear. Google’s response was corporate doublespeak (translation: non-sequitur gibberish).

So now the search engine is trying to covertly influence national elections.

I won’t go into the numerous companies Google has purchased, and why. I don’t know why. And I don’t know how well they fit in with “Don’t Be Evil”. I do know that one way or another, they allow Google to spread its influence in ways we can’t know or predict.

Let’s revisit this “Don’t be evil” business. Clearly Google is not satisfied to simply be a search engine any more. Now they seek to dictate web content and design. They also appear to be intent on influencing American politics on the eve of a national election, in favor of a candidate whose integrity has been questioned not just for weeks, months or years, but for decades. Is this evil? When you went to Google’s web page today to search for some doo-dad or another, did you see any political disclaimers? Anything that would indicate a political bias? No? Did you see anything about Google being intent on dictating web content and design? No? And yet, somehow being “not evil” includes all these things. It appears that Google has defined “evil” for itself, but it appears that whatever definition they’ve devised is not one you would recognize.

Should you trust Google? That’s up to you. But the old maxim about looking, not listening serves well in this case. Google’s motto is a piece of corporate rubbish. Their actions indicate far more about their intent than their motto ever could. And their actions appear to be, at least partially, fully the inverse of what their motto would indicate.