When the Google Breaks

Are you surprised that this column isn’t about Google Instant? This past week we’ve been inundated with news and opinions about Google’s newest innovation. Some articles have gone as far as to announce the death of SEO, while others complain this is another way for Google to push people towards higher priced ads. While all this is interesting, I actually have my eye on a little story coming out of Texas that doesn’t seem to be getting enough attention. Apparently the Texas Attorney General’s office is interested in learning more about how Google ranks sites. While this comes up time to time, I think this is one of those small stories that will start gathering steam and start to make cracks in the Google foundation.

The Aniston Effect

We’re an odd society. Humans are complex, but in regards to social actions, predictable. Despite our diversity, there are certain patterns we’ve always followed. We go through love/hate patterns with brands and celebrities. AOL, Microsoft, Tiger Woods, and Walmart are great examples. They go through three phases of what I call the “Aniston Effect.”

Phase 1 – The “Friends” Phenomenon

Remember when she was just a blip on the radar? Then “Friends” hit and it was all Aniston all the time. The same happens with companies. Through thoughtful marketing, innovative concept, or new breakout product they quickly become a full-blown tsunami of market influence (e.g., Aniston’s haircut). We cheer their rise to power. Marvel at how they make every right move. In time, we grow more and more reliant on what they create. You’re envious of colleagues that get the opportunity to work there. Others try to mimic their success. They’re a household name. The only danger is that Wall Street falls in love with them as well and asks them to be the bellwether of our economy.

Phase 2 – Brad and Jen

They’re too big, too rich, too powerful, and too whiny. This was the tail end of “Friends” and the beginning of Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt. Companies create new ideas, but they are reduced to profit and greed. People start counting their money. They make changes or launch products we don’t like and soon become the target of our sharp criticism. Unified in their demise, we ask our government to step in and do something (even though we hate when our government steps in).

Phase 3 – Angelina Is the Devil

I’m not sure she’s here yet. We all hate Angelina Jolie, but we aren’t rooting for Aniston to have a hit movie or relationship. This is where we get kind of annoying as a species. Now that they’ve fallen, we feel bad and root for a comeback story. The company restructures, rebuilds, or just genuinely comes across as more sympathetic, and next thing you know we’re cheering. Does anybody really doubt that in five to 10 years we won’t be cheering the redemption of Lindsay Lohan as she accepts an Academy Award for some Milos Forman movie? Of course we will.

Google is inevitably headed down this path.

It Will Be Our Fault

I get asked all the time about who will topple Google. My honest answer is: us. We demand such financial performance from Google that it will force them to make some questionable decisions. We’ve all seen what happens after an earning’s call, when Google knocks it out of the park, but misses something by a hair. The market tanks because in our minds, if Google can’t hit the number, then how can anybody else.

So if you’re Google, what do you do? You innovate like crazy and try and find new ways to create more revenue (and here is where the conspiracy theory kicks in). Google has access to so much data and brainpower that it can make very accurate guesstimates regarding how much revenue it is driving to its advertisers. Do you really think that Google can’t figure out with 85 percent certainty how many blue jeans it sold this year? With that information, it could easily figure out that just by charging 2 cents more across this entire category it could still deliver for clients and add money to its bottom line. You think the government isn’t looking into Google’s purchase of ITA for this reason? They know Google will try and find a way to monetize that because Wall Street demands it does.

Defending Google

Defending Google is kind of like feeling bad for the Yankees because the team’s starting rotation is hurting this year. However, it is puzzling that we’ve got Google in the crosshairs when we all know the rules. Google is like a country club. Whether it is link building or Quality Score, it’s allowed to decide how advertisers will be ranked as long as it provides a level playing field. Google gives us guidelines on how to be successful, but it’s up to us to perform. Some succeed, some don’t – simple enough. If you choose to participate in this system, then you need to abide by Google’s rules. If it chooses to charge more, so be it. It’s Google’s right to make money.

So maybe we should back off a little. Maybe we should just be happy that Google provides this amazing service and not ask it to do too much more? Google makes a lot of money, employs a lot of people, and seems genuinely interested in being philanthropic. So why do we need it to find alternate revenue streams? Why can’t it just be great at search? Let’s allow Google to break the cycle.

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