Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Has Google lost its way?

As someone who grew up in the ’90s, I have trouble remembering how I went about solving life’s greatest mysteries before the advent of Internet search—but more specifically, Google. With google as a verb firmly entrenched in my vocabulary, I can’t fathom what happened when, 15 years ago, someone asked me a trivial question such as, “how many different iterations of the Oreo are there?” (In case you’re wondering, there are 25.) Did I “Encarta ’95” it? Doubtful. More likely, I would ask my mother or father, whom, being the omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent beings they were at the time, I believed wholeheartedly.

Then Google arrived, and we never looked back or questioned our reliance on it for our everyday inquiries. But over the past few months, people have started to question Google’s future as the technology company that does no evil. According to Google CEO Larry Page, “the perfect search engine would understand exactly what you mean and give back exactly what you want.”  Some now believe Google has taken those concepts of understanding and giving back what the user wants a bit too far.

Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, wrote last Thursday that what many of us loved about Google “was the idea that it showed us The Known Universe of Stuff on a Topic.” He’s right; everyone knew when you did a Google search that you would get results ranked by relevance. From the large number of results, you would then decide which was most accurate based on how well you trusted each source. The problem with Google search now, Madrigal said, is that Google has taken away some of that decision-making ability with personalization. “The more the search engine—and the web more generally—adjust themselves to us, the less they represent a collective idea of what is known,” he wrote.

Google is watching you


Also last Thursday, Mat Honan of Gizmodo argued that users have begun to mistrust Google for its tactics to aggregate, sort, and use their personal data to sway search results. “Google is a fundamentally different company than it has been in the past,” he said, leading him to ask the foreboding question: “Has Google reached a point where it must be evil?” In fact, Honan believes that Google is no longer committed to providing users with “the perfect search engine.” Its interest lies instead with Google as a whole, consisting of search, Google+, Gmail, etc. To feed and sustain that interest, Google must know everything about you—whether you willingly provide that information or not. Google’s new, broader privacy policy, implemented on March 1, may lead to class-action lawsuits, with complaints filed by consumers in New York and California just last week.

How do you feel about this shift in Google’s business plan? Do you think your personal information is being exploited by the search engine, or do you approve of a little privacy breach for the sake of a better search experience?

8 comments on “Has Google lost its way?

  1. Andy Dost (@eaglie)
    March 27, 2012

    “…I can’t fathom what happened when, 15 years ago, someone asked me a trivial question such as ‘how many different iterations of the Oreo are there?'”

    Wasn’t there only one iteration at the time–implying that rampant Oreo speciation began with the advent of search engines and the growth of the Internet?

    Food for thought.

  2. Keira Lyons
    March 27, 2012

    I don’t know…I feel like some of them have been around for a long time…i.e. double-stuffed and Halloween? I can’t remember a time when those didn’t exist.

  3. AJJenner
    March 27, 2012

    I don’t like it at all – in fact, I have started using Yahoo search engine more, and i’m even considering changing from gmail to yahoo mail. I don’t like the thought that they can tailor advertising and search results to what they know about me from key words in my e-mails. It is a scary intrusion that has gone too far in my opinion.

  4. Erica Hartnett
    March 27, 2012

    I’m pretty torn on this. On the one hand, if I’m searching for a store address or business hours, the fact that Google can give me the right store that is located in MA versus one in CA with the same name is great. But I don’t necessarily want that personalization and customization for everything. For some things, like work fact-checking for example, I don’t want relevance rankings to be influenced by circles, though it seems that’s where everything is eventually headed. This is one reason that I have not yet signed up for Google+. But even as a non-Google+ Googler, my Gmail contacts are starting to show up at the top of the page with my searches anyway, and this is a feature I’m just not that interested in.

    To an extent, I do not mind divulging a little personal data (if it is anonymous and protected) for improved experience since that’s how the world works now, but I am only willing to provide this information if I find value in the service. My problem is when you have to make these sacrifices by default whether or not you consider the exchange valuable. (And in my mind this applies to any tech-related company, not necessarily just Google).

  5. Keira Lyons
    March 27, 2012

    AJ–it makes me a little uncomfortable as well. You have no idea how many times I’ve gotten ads on my Gmail page for Bunn Coffeemakers (my fiance’s last name is Bunn!) The thought of Google trolling my emails is scary. How does Yahoo compare to Google with regard to your search experience? Comparable?

  6. Keira Lyons
    March 27, 2012

    P.S. Erica–I’ve turned off my Google history and I don’t get Gmail contacts showing up with my searches. Have you turned yours off? Perhaps that’s the reason for it?

  7. daddyvortex
    March 27, 2012

    I do share this uneasy feeling of being watched online which is sparked by news articles. When I learned that gmail read my emails to suggest advertising, I put off getting an account for several years. I changed from default Google search to oldie (well, it is to me) Alta Vista and went back to OpenDNS from Google’s server. I’ve opted out of every thing I can on Google (and Facebook) and have put anti-tracking apps ‘Ghostery’ and ‘Keep My Opt-Outs’ on my Chrome browser (I know, I know, “So you are uneasy but use Chrome and gmail?”). I have not done enough reading to learn if all browsers and services do tracking and that’s my excuse for continuing to use Chrome. “Even paranoids have enemies.”

  8. Keira Lyons
    March 28, 2012

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, everyone! Loving the feedback.

Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on March 27, 2012 by in Technology and tagged , , .

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