Google’s had a rough second half of the year. First there was the backlash from advertisers who found that brand advertising was being found on pornographic and extremist videos on Youtube (oops), then there was the record €4.2bn fine slapped on it by the European Commission for manipulating search results to favour its own shopping comparison site.
In the last two months, it’s got worse. There’s been revelations that Google’s Home Mini, the voice activated assistant, was recording the conversations of its users without them knowing. That’s not to mention the recent reports of Google knowing the location of its Android users even when they’ve got location services turned off, and the lawsuit that’s been filed on behalf of five million iPhone users accusing Google of collecting data unlawfully using a sneaky algorithm that tricked iPhones into giving away browser data...
When you see all of the allegations in one place, it makes it even more remarkable that Google hasn’t suffered financially. Parent Alphabet’s Q3 revenues were a neat $27.47bn, up from $22.25bn the year before. Google just seems impervious to the PR disasters that keep befalling it.
In a 2014 Mylife survey, 52.8% of respondents answered ‘no’ when asked if they trusted Google, but the absence of trust isn’t affecting its popularity. Google’s lack of transparency might make some users (rightly) suspicious, but it can counteract this with an unbeatable service that is ingrained in some of the most fundamental web activities.
Imagine taking Google out of your life: resistance is futile. Just ask the alt-right activists who called for one after a Google employee was fired for an writing an anti-diversity white paper back in August. Finding an alternative to the Google ecosystem is hard. Just rattle down the list of what comes under the Alphabet umbrella. From email to public wifi to maps...there’s no escape.
(Well, there is always Bing - *holds back laughter*)
Google’s users are consumers, not customers. Rather, the data Google gets from its users is sold to its actual customers, namely advertisers and the like. But even the mad men can’t dent Google’s armour.
Just look at the supposed advertiser boycott in June, where more than 250 brands rolled back on their spending with YouTube, with some even boycotting it unless changes were made. It made no impact to Google’s share price and didn’t even get a mention in the company's earnings call, with CFO Ruth Porat noting in July that some of the ‘biggest contributors to growth again this quarter were mobile search and YouTube,’.Ouch.
As companies and people alike are powerless, government is not. ‘What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules,’ said EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager of the ruling earlier this year. ‘It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation.’
Google is set to appeal the decision, but with the EU last month preparing to fine it again with another antitrust penalty over its AdSense network, the cat is out of the bag. In June, a Canadian court took the unprecedented step of trying to delist Google search results worldwide (when they referenced a distributor accused of stealing trade secrets) which, although Google was able to block the order form taking effect, sent a further clear message that the ‘just trust us’ way of doing business can be kept in check.
It seems Google realises this. Its pledge last week to hire 10,000 staff to combat extremist content and joining the Trust Project with other tech giants as Facebook to increase fake news transparency are signs that it cares about its reputation. Talk is cheap though, and Google may find there’s a cost to not taking trust seriously.
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