By Joel Hruska | Published: July 09, 2007 – 02:45PM CT
Twice in the past two weeks, Google’s adherence to its corporate motto has been called into question based on blog posts by employees. First, there was Laura Turner’s “Does negative press make you Sicko?” post, in which she criticized Michael Moore’s recent portrayal of the American healthcare and pharamaceutical industries and suggested Google advertising as the best antidote for any negative press ills brought on by the documentary.
Turner later attempted to clarify her previous post by drawing a line between her opinion and Google’s and by characterizing advertising as a neutral service that either side of the healthcare debate is capable of using. A final post from Missy Krasner (identified as a product marketing manager) attempted to settle the issue by portraying Google as a concerned party who cares deeply about America’s health care system, but such clarification arrived well after Turner’s comments had ignited a firestorm of criticism by bloggers and some media folks.
A significant part of the anger that Turner’s post elicited came from the fact that Turner works for Google, and, the company’s much-publicized privacy headaches notwithstanding, the public still seems to trust the search giant. And what’s more, many people want to believe that Google is a different, non-Evil kind of big corporation. But by coming down firmly on the side of Big Pharma in her blog post (and then offering only a lukewarm, “Google advertising is neutral” non-retraction), Turner effectively put Google on the side of big-corporate Evil for the portion of Americans who identified with Moore’s criticisms in Sicko. Krasner’s later post doesn’t follow up on this idea of the neutrality of Google advertising. Instead, it aims to re-establish Google as a company on the side of Good: a company that uses its resources and knowledge to address the problems in America’s health care system.
The Google vs. Sicko dustup was followed the next week by a much smaller-scale exchange between InfoWeek‘s Thomas Claburn and Google on the sincerity of Google’s anti-spam efforts. Claburn’s post, titled “Is Google’s Spam Fight a Sham?” alleges that a Google blog post explaining how to create effective “startpages” is effectively a Google endorsement of the creation of so-called “doorway pages.” Doorway pages consist of a page offering little more than links and phrases aimed at a particular topic and are used to spam search indexes like Google’s. Claburn alleged that Google’s promotion of startpages, when combined with its AdSense for Domains program, turns its spam-fighting efforts into little more than a farce. (For those of you who aren’t aware, AdSense for Domains is a program where Google loads domain-name relevant ads on to a parked domain and displays those ads to anyone who surfs in.)
As in the case of the healthcare blog fiasco, other Google employees came to defend and explain the initial post, with Google’s head of webspam Matt Cutts offering clarifications. In his post in response to Claburn, Cutts explains that startpages, though they’re largely unfamiliar to Americans, are relatively common practice in Holland (this is why the second half of the initial post is in Dutch). He also defends the AdSense for Domains program as a way to stop parked domains from offering malware or 404s to users who access them.
In this case, the press appears to have been actively looking for ways in which Google might be wavering in their well-known commitment to non-Evil. The entire situation demonstrates why most companies Google’s size typically maintain PR departments that do the job of carefully overseeing all interaction between the company’s employees and the public. Google’s current approach of using blogs as both a means of casual communication and a formal channel for announcing products and events, while laudably democratic, paints a large (and constantly growing) target for reporters and other Google watchers who are looking for evidence of Evil—whether real or manufactured—within Google’s corporate structure and business plans.
As Google continues to grow rapidly and absorb more companies operating in a wider variety of areas, its operations and policies become, of necessity, more complex and murky, and the company’s informal motto of “Don’t Be Evil” becomes even harder to uphold in appearance and, perhaps, even in reality.