04 February 2014

The Significance of Google's "Do No Evil"

This summer, as a result of series of hard o duplicate coincidences, I found myself working as a consultant for a large company's rebranding efforts.

This is not my field of expertise but I know enough about the corporate world and I am a full-fledged contrarian. So I accepted the assignment. It turned out to be a fascinating exercise.

I explained to them that when you are a large company with many activity areas that touch upon people's daily lives, it is very important that they perceive you as a benevolent force. And for that to work, you need to be and to act like a benevolent giant.

I gave them Google as an example.

Google's informal motto is "Don't Be Evil" but it is generally rendered as "Do No Evil."

Why is that curt reassurance necessary?

Well, think about it.

Google knows everything about your digital footprint. You look for a plane ticket, the following day all the Web sites you visit contain airline commercials.

You check a site in Bahasa and if you refuse Google's helpful offer to translate it for you, an hour later you are served ads in that language. Gmail has your entire mail history, in searchable format and any key word in any message will trigger new ads for you.

Here is what a journalist found out when he researched how much Google knew about him.

Google Docs, Google Maps, Google Translate contain information about your activities, your location and your interests. Picasa has your pictures, Google Drive safeguards your valuable data. Blogger maintains your blogs, YouTube holds on to your video clips.

They introduced Google+ not as a competitor to FaceBook but as a unifying framework for all these services and data. You are a blogger, your Google+ identity ties you to your content and enlarges your readership. You are a small business owner, your presence in Google Maps is enhanced through Google Plus Local Business pages.

Your online searches, your presence and activities in Google+ Communities and your data in all Google services are solidified in one detailed, accurate and perfect identity. While Google+ features only 540 million users (FaceBook has 1.2 billion), it is growing faster than FaceBook or Twitter.

Actually, the comparison with FaceBook is silly. I have been avoiding FaceBook for years and I have suffered no loss. But it would be utterly impossible for me to function on the Internet if I were to try to avoid Google. They are ubiquitous and their services are very hard to ignore.

As a result, Google knows a lot about most of us.

But what makes Google different is the way they go about their business.

Those of you old enough might remember this: Microsoft almost gave away Word (and it had no copy protection) until they destroyed Word Perfect. Same thing with Excel and Lotus 123. Then they bundled these products into Office, they installed a very hard to break copy protection scheme and charged an exorbitant price for it. We all bought it and used it because, by then, we had no choice. But we resented every minute of it.

Google does not work that way. They are not into destroying other companies. Picasa is not there to kill off Flickr or Instagram. It is there to collect more of your data.

They also do not like to force you into things. If they wanted to, most of us would be obliged to sign up for Google+. Instead, they develop excellent services and give them to you for free to entice you to come in.

This is where "Do No Evil" slogan becomes important.

If I am aware of what Google does and if I have some freedom not to sign on this, that or the other Google services, I don't mind Google selling my information from the services I use. I would have minded it if it was Microsoft, Apple or Oracle collecting my data because rightly or wrongly, I perceive them as capable of doing evil.

I am quite aware that there are many people who do not share my vision of Google. But the reason I trust Google is the fact that they actually operate differently than most companies.

Or as I told my client, they practice what they preach. Without that unison, they could not maintain that brand image.

Let me give you an example.

There is a secret Google Lab called Google X. Their operating principle is rewarding failure. Yes, you read that correctly. It is not that they want you to fail all the time. They are simply aware that unless you remove failure from the equation, most people will not look into outrageous solutions.
You must reward people for failing, he says. If not, they won't take risks and make breakthroughs. If you don't reward failure, people will hang on to a doomed idea for fear of the consequences. That wastes time and saps an organisation's spirit. 
Can you say Microsoft?

The Lab has three simple operating principles.

One, you have to identify a problem to be solved. Even brilliant ideas are discarded if they do not address a specific problem.

Two, the solution should be so amazing and effective that, it it worked, it would eradicate that problem.

Three, "there has to be some reason to believe the science or technology underpinning that solution, that makes us think the idea is only mostly crazy."
As an example, he cites the problem of a million people dying on the roads each year. The science fiction solution it came up with was driverless cars that don't crash. Google has now clocked up hundreds of thousands of miles of testing that suggests this technology will work and could transform our world.  
Tellingly, unlike every other corporation operating in what we euphemistically call the free market, Google Lab projects never take into account whether their solution would make money. They believe that you need solid marketing if your solution is incrementally better. But if the solution you cam up with is exponentially better, "the money's going to come and find you in a fair and elegant way."

Crucially, the director of the Lab adds that this has always been Google's way of conducting business.
"Things like search or translate, things like maps, have been in the public domain free to the users but often without advertising or any form of compensation - sometimes for many years - when Google didn't make money on it or even have a plan to make money on it and Google was just 'Let's make value for the users. We'll figure out how to make money later'." 
One other thing.

Unlike every other company out there with an Alpha male at its helm running a tight and hierarchical ship, Google takes another approach to management.
Google managers need to keep their staff happy because, Mr Teller says, you don't need your manager's permission to leave a particular section if you believe they are behaving in an obnoxious manner. 
"Not only will you leave but everyone will leave and that guy is going to find himself voted off the island by his own people," he adds.
That's why I believe them when they tell me they won't be evil.  

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