Google Revisited, Part 2

In our May 29 issue, we took a look at what Google is doing these days and concluded that, in general, it's pretty good stuff. We're impressed that Google has achieved its success without resorting to the kinds of coercive behavior that has characterized Microsoft and other dominant companies. Google simply offers what it considers the best product in its field, leaving consumers free to patronize a competitor if they choose.

Nevertheless, our readers don't always see eye to eye with us, for which we are grateful. Some of you took the time to present us with what we believe are legitimate complaints about Google. So here we'll examine those, along with other questions that have been raised about the company whose motto is "Don't be evil."

Google vs. China

Is there a dark side to Google?

Yes, says a reader who rather oddly characterizes us as "leftist leaning," leading us to surmise that either he hasn't been paying attention or, more likely, is an enthusiastic supporter of George W. Bush, and resents our criticism of the president. For the record, Bush offends our libertarian principles precisely because in many respects (deficit spending, bureaucracy growth, meddlesome foreign policy, etc.) he is the most liberal president since LBJ.

This reader went on to chide us for not remanding Google for caving in to Chinese demands for content control and censorship over politically sensitive topics such as Taiwan and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. In order to ensure a toehold in that giant emerging market, Google (along with Microsoft and Yahoo) submitted to the Chinese government's demands.

Call it what you will, Google agreed to self-censorship and the limiting of users' freedom to access information, not something to be proud of.

For its part, the company defends itself by maintaining that it can play a more useful role in China by participating than by boycotting, despite the compromises involved.

Perhaps. But the point is taken.

Google the Irritator

Another reader reports that his new Dell laptop, running Windows Vista, includes software that "pesters the PC owner forever until he signs up to add Google's task bar." This reader finally gave in and added something not particularly useful to him. He is not happy about it, understandably.

While being a pest doesn't equate to creating a lock-in, it is in the same general neighborhood, and we would hope that this does not represent a step in that direction for Google.

Google as Big Brother

Then there's Street View. Privacy advocates have been down on Google since the introduction of this new service in May.

Street View allows Internet users to zoom in on a large number of streets in several major American cities. In some instances, individuals are readily identifiable, along with whatever activity they're engaged in, potentially including things they don't want the whole world to see.

Google says all its Street View photos were taken from vehicles driving along public streets during the past year, and thus what you see is exactly what you'd see had you been walking in the same area at the same time.

Well, yes... but raising the number of viewers from a handful to many million changes the dynamic somewhat. Suppose, for example, you're a woman who is seen trying to quietly enter a domestic violence shelter? Being posted on Street View could have some nasty consequences.

Google has provided a Help button that allows people to request removal of an image that's objectionable to them.

But, in a free market, if a company wishes to take photos in public locations and post them to the internet, there isn't much anyone can really say about it.

And if this service does actually cause anyone financial or physical distress, those people are welcome to file for redress (through lawsuits and such) for any damage caused.

In the end, technology is rapidly changing our world and no one can stop it, but if someone is going to increase surveillance in public locations we are much more comfortable with private companies manning the cameras rather than the Orwellian streets of London as they are today.

Google and the Mob?

Finally, there's click fraud, a crime that didn't even exist just a few years ago.

Click fraud is defined on Wikipedia as "a type of internet crime that occurs in pay per click (PPC) online advertising when a person, automated script, or computer program imitates a legitimate user of a web browser clicking on an ad, for the purpose of generating a charge per click without having actual interest in the target of the ad's link."

Under an advertising arrangement such as Google's AdWords and AdSense, ads are placed either on Google search pages or on third-party sites. When a user clicks on one of these ads, that click is tallied and Google is paid by the advertiser at a predetermined PPC rate. If a third party is involved, it also gets a share of the revenue.

The system is designed quickly and easily to bring together companies with something to sell and buyers who want that product, and as such it provides a valuable service - but only if the user is a legitimate prospective customer.

Early on, scam artists realized that there was money to be made by hosting an advertiser's link, sometimes on a dummy site filled with nothing but recycled Google ads, then using an automated clicking program (or "clickbot") to vastly inflate the number of clicks. Other scammers organized "paid to read" (PTR) operations, which feature networks of hundreds or thousands of people worldwide, sitting at home and clicking away. Even organized crime has gotten involved.

Once advertisers, perplexed over scanty sales from large numbers of clicks, realized what was going on, they complained, and click fraud was recognized as a criminal activity. (Con artists, always trying to stay one step ahead of the law, have dreamed up ever more sophisticated schemes to escape detection, many of them too complicated to go into here. Wikipedia provides a good starting point for readers interested in researching this further.)

Some have questioned whether Google does enough to combat click fraudsters.

Absolutely, says Google, which claims that it "strives to detect every invalid click that passes through its system." The company claims that it uses complex algorithms that filter out most questionable clicks, and it either doesn't charge for them or reimburses advertisers who have been wrongly billed.

Critics, though, charge that the big problem has nothing to do with algorithms and everything to do with Google's practice of recycling search engine ads to so-called "parked domains," i.e. sites composed of nothing but advertising links. Google, which has cut off domain parking firms that were not serving advertisers' interests or were known to be associated with PTR rings, still defends them in general as useful in directing surfers to their desired destination.

In the end, Google has a lot more to lose (its entire business) than it does to gain from allowing, or partaking, in seedy revenue skimming schemes.

The Conclusion

All our fine reader's points are well taken but in our humble opinion, buckling to government pressure in a hot new market, being irritating, taking photos in public and being victimized (to Google's reputation) by the actions of some fraudsters, does not make Google evil.

And for that, they continue to live up to their motto, so far.

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Posted 07-10-2007 12:58 AM by DougHornig