Google dominated search and online ads with a lot of great engineering and hard work, then they leveraged their search dominance and more great work to build a strong presence in webmail, maps, and many smaller categories.
Geeks like us commended them for how well they operated their business, seemingly (mostly) living up to their geeky, feel-good “Don’t be evil” motto1, “winning” by releasing (mostly) quality products that catered to our geeky preferences while gaining huge marketshare.
But social networking never worked well for them. The battles between social giants bought Google some time, but now, Facebook has established themselves into as strong of a position in social networking as Google holds in search and advertising. As Facebook extends its social dominance into more areas that may threaten Google’s profits and relevance, Google knows it has to fight back and is finally making a strong attempt. But, unlike when Microsoft realized it was late to the web over a decade ago, Google’s big attempt to invade social networking with their own Google+ product hasn’t worked.
It’s the first time that Google has largely failed against a threat of this magnitude.
It’s easy not to “be evil” when you’re ahead. But when you’re backed into a corner and your usual strategies aren’t working, it’s easy to get frustrated, scared, and angry, and throw previously held morals and standards out the window.
People with very strong values can maintain their standards and dignity even under immense pressure. But that’s no easy feat. And every time we get a peek into Google’s leadership, from intentional patent infringement and anticompetitive aggression to selling out net neutrality and now tarnishing search relevance, it’s increasingly clear that Google’s upper management is willing to do a lot of “evil”, even by Google’s own previous standards, to get their way when they’re not winning.
In the first version of Bullshit, I had misquoted the “Don’t be evil” motto as “Do no evil”, and a reader complained by email that I was being too strict. The difference between the two is subtle but important.
“Do no evil” is a much stronger statement: don’t do anything “evil”, whatever that means.
“Don’t be evil” allows a lot of wiggle room and equivocation. What does it mean to be evil? Can you still do evil here and there without being evil overall? Doing evil seems more concrete and easily verifiable by others, but being evil sounds like the kind of label you’d be able to escape if you only do evil occasionally, or if you think what you’re doing is justifiable. ↩