Friday, May 1, 2009

Google's Detractors

In my recent article about being a canary in Google's coal mine, I wanted some links for articles about Google as a privacy problem. This lead me to a site called Google-Watch. Now, to be fair, there's always going to be someone who says that any given service is going to rot your teeth and make the county lose the trade war. It's not surprising that Google-Watch exists, therefore. It is a bit surprising, though, that for a site with so much to say about Google, they don't actually cite anything of interest.

So what is Google-Watch? It seems to be run by Daniel Brandt, a detractor of Google's who apparently first got into blogging about the evils of Google as a result of a dispute over his ranking on the search engine (note that I am extracting this background from Google-Watch-Watch, a site which has a clearly stated bias, so your mileage may vary). In essence, the site is a pool of articles about the evils of nearly everything Google does. Scanning books? Evil (but there's a more balanced view of the good and bad of it available). Page ranking the Web? Evil. Offering free email services? So evil that even sending mail to a gmail account terrifies him to the point that he can't do it. He really is a one-issue guy, and has no room for a middle-ground.

OK, so on to some specifics. He quotes some ancient history:

A blogger puts up a spoof page on 29 May 2003 announcing a "Nigerian Email Conference." By June 6, this spoof has 105,000 hits. Most of these are due to Slashdot, a geeky forum with lots of noise and juvenile humor, dripping with PageRank, which mentioned the spoof on June 1. But there are also 600 links in Google for "nigerian email conference" by June 6, picked up by the "freshbot" as it made its way down the repetitive link panels on various blogrolls. The geeks at Google love Slashdot, so Slashdot's little chuckle even shows up on Google News.

This example is one of the best examples of his lack of perspective. What he's reporting as a failure on Google's part is the ebb (and presumably flow) of the popularity of a bit of Web humor. Slashdot, one of the original "web logs" (from which the modern term "blog" derives) is a geek-friendly news side full of Internet technology news, humor and science. Slashdot was, independent of Google's page rank which came about a year after Slashdot began, an instant sensation among the technical crowd and so popular at one point that its "Slashdot effect" was known for killing Web sites by linking a news story to them and crushing their servers with an influx of curious users. Death by popularity was one of the greatest ironies of the early Web.

So his claim is that there's something wrong with this picture. That somehow because the site was humorous, there's something wrong not only with it becoming popular but with a news site covering it and Google tracking the news site in Google News. There's certainly some value in calling out Slashdot as a less than fully serious site, but I don't see why there's a problem here beyond the need to improve organization of content in Google News.

But it gets better. Allow me to quote once again:

Google-lover Jimmy Wales scolded me when I tried to delete the Salon and watch-watch links from Wikipedia. Mr. Wales is already rich, and knows that someday Google will make him even richer. Wikipedia is the world's most-scraped site. Google loves Wikipedia — those scrapers have to grab content from somewhere so that they can show Google's ads on their pages. Everyone gets rich, except for anyone who gets slimed by the process.

That's right, now we're attacking the founder of the world's largest repository of legitimately valuable Web-based information on topics ranging from physics to history and everything between. He's attacking Wales because he wasn't allowed to delete content from Wikipedia which he found to be objectionable. So on the one hand the problem is that Google's secret agenda is putting your privacy and data at risk. On the other hand, the problem is that Wikipedia's public agenda isn't letting him remove information from the Web.

There's something about Wikipedia and folks with an axe to grind. They seem to attract each other. I've never seen a Web ranter about any single-minded cause that hasn't decided that Wikipedia is the enemy. Interestingly, they usually move on to Google. This guy just went about it in the other direction.

Anyway. Google detractors exist, and I've been one at various times. I don't want there to be one search giant. I don't want there to be one email/voice/calendar integrator. I want there to be other good services out there, but while Microsoft and others fight for the ability to lock in users and provide minimal service, Google keeps adding in new and innovative features. They experiment (voice mail transcription certainly isn't perfect, but it's free and in my mailbox, so I'm not complaining about the rush-to-market), they tinker and they contribute back. Thousands of open source projects are fostered and contributed to by Google. They're truly helping to make the computing world a better place.

In essence, I'd ask Mr. Brandt: what have you done to make the Web more useful? Did you invent a better search engine? Write an open source phone operating system? Or is the only difference between you and Google the will to try to see your dreams through to reality?

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