ONE OF THE MIRACLES of modern technology is undoubtedly Google, without which we might never be able to find anything on the internet. Google has become a giant corporation on the back of their ability to index the entire web and so allow anyone to go straight to the most relevant information at the click of a mouse.
Google started life in 1998 as a reasonably informal company using advanced search technology developed while the two founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were doing their PhDs at Stanford University. Instead of completing their PhDs they founded their company which subsequently become a phenomenal success. In 2011, Google had annual sales of US$38bn, profits of US$9.7bn, and has built up a cash mountain of US$45bn.
All this financial success has been built on the back of being able to sell valuable advertising space on the back of relevant searches; and of course, as with all giant corporations, they are now under intense pressure to deliver better and better financial results each quarter.
Their most recent quarterly results (Q4, 2011) disappointed slightly as the company struggled to adapt to the rapid growth of smartphones and mobile technology as the means by which more and more people are accessing information.
But balancing the presentation of search results along with the inclusion of paid-for entries can be problematic. Users normally see the first three search results, which have paid to be displayed, before they get round to those which better meet their search criteria; and the right hand column is also usually a list of commercials. Many people find the extent of all this commercial intrusion annoying.
Last year Google begun to store details of searches for later reuse. People have been rather surprised that after they have conducted a search for some item or other, further relevant information specifically to that search has popped up on their screens in subsequent days. This has alarmed users, particularly those who share a computer and were using Google to research a private matter, perhaps a surprise gift for their spouse, who might then discover what they were looking for.
It should be noted that Microsoft has made a huge investment into a rival search engine, called ‘Bing’, which seems to be reasonably comparable in performance but (as it is not their main source of revenue) has not needed to carry so much commercial content as Google.
The Daily Mail suggests that Google will “know you better than your wife”. M&C Satchi has been hired as PR advisors to manage the criticism but maybe we just need to learn to live with it. Scott McNealy, the founder of Sun Microsystems, once said: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”
Google has form here – a couple of years ago they were severely censured for logging private information from personal WiFis as their Google Earth camera van mapped the streets.
Sergey Grin has said “Some say Google is God. Others say Google is Satan. But if they think Google is too powerful, remember that with search engines unlike other companies, all it takes is a single click to go to another search engine”.
One wonders if this latest assault on our privacy will cause more and more people to make that single click, and switch to Bing.