Which Way Google

September 13, 2011
By Lisa Barone in Internet Marketing Conferences

Gooood morning, SMXers! After a morning that started off with a(n involuntary) cold shower, getting lost, and then almost getting sideswiped by a cab, I, personally, am very excited that I am finally here and alive.  Just a reminder that we’ll be providing full SMX East coverage all week. So if you’re not at the show or you ARE at the show but are missing some of the sessions, this is where you want to be for the full updates. And with that, it’s time to get started.


NO, HE DIDN’T  Danny Sullivan just sat down and challenged me to a liveblog-off.  Really, Danny? You want this.

It’s on.

Up on stage we have Chris Sherman moderating Jeff Jarvis, Steven Levy and Marc Rotenberg. Everyone starts off by introducing themselves.  Jeff and Steven both have fancy books about Google. Look intimidated. Marc is hear to preach the privacy angle.

Chris kicks things off on a philosphical level.  Larry and Sergey say that Google is out there to make people smart. Others say Google is making us dumber because it’s so easy to use. Which is right?

Steven: He thinks there’s a march to technology. To stand back and look at a technological advance and say “Google makes us smarter” or “Google makes us dumber” is beside the point. They’ve changed us. How we adapt to that change is what matters. It doesn’t make us dumber. It may make it easier to get by if you ARE dumb, but it doesn’t necessarily make us stupid because you don’t have to memorize data.

Marc: He thinks both statements are true. It reminds him of the early days of Wikipedia [Wow. How old you feel right now?] and people were afraid that kids were using Wikipedia as a source. The thing with Wikipedia is that you interact with it. If something there is wrong, you fix it. It puts demands on the user.

Jeff:  We’re smarter.  Now if you want a fact you’re going to see it in .3 seconds. That changes how we are. He sees opportunity here.

We watch a mock video that takes a look at user’s willingness to hand over their data. We see the CIA thanking Facebook for getting users to hand them an alphabetized list of everyone they know. It talks about Operation Farmville which pacified as many as 800  million people so they were no long worried about unemployement. We laugh but…it’s also kind of true.

Chris says that Google is obviously doing similar things. There’s a difference between gathering information and using the information that’s being gathered. What’s your take on that? Google’s doing a great job gathering information but are they good stewards? Should we be concerned?

Marc: Google gets a lot of information. The government comes to them and wants that info, what does Google do? He believes there should be a very high legal standard. The government shouldn’t be able to get information from Google unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Part two concerns the background relationship between Google and the national security agency. They became very interested in the NSA’s interest in Google following the China hack in 2010.  What was interesting was that the NSA got very quickly involved and worked with Google on new security standards. He doesnt think the government should be setting security standards for the public. They filed a request to learn more about their (NSA’s) relationship with Google and the NSA said they could neither confirm nor deny what they were talking about. NICE! Right now they’re in the midst of a very high profile case looking at the relationship between Google and the NSA.

Steven: The Internet makes a lot of things available and accessible and Google is the instrument by which people discover these things. In the early days people were astounded at what was coming up. If you Google yourself and a DUI comes up in the first ten results, that’s like someone putting something on your resume.  He always felt that Google should take more ownership of that problem. For a long time, Larry and Sergey believed that if it’s public, it’s out there. He thinks Google does need to take ownership for that.  That’s the core privacy problem with Google, to him.

For Facebook it’s different. They’re getting YOU to put that information in there and then they’re making it more accessible.

Marc: Just a quick note on Steve’s point. There’s an interesting point in Spain where people have ordered Google to take down sensitive information about them and Google is fighting that.

Steven:  He wrote his book because he wants to recast discussions on what he thinks.  Google and Facebook allow people to be public in a way we haven’t been able to before.  His fear is that if we go too far trying to prevent against certain fears we have with technology, we could cut off some of the power that we have.  It’s easy to say you should have a right to be forgotten, but how far does that go?  We have to tread carefully on saying what should not be public.

Google provides sophisticated tools for controlling your information. It’s interesting because the way Google defines that information is narrow in scope.  You don’t have control over what other people say about you. Google is being proactive but are they going far enough giving people control over their data?

Steven: But is it theirs? If he talks about Chris Sherman on his page, that’s not Chris’ data. It’s Steven’s data. If he says lies about him, that’s illegal.  To say that Google is just the linker to that information and is now responsible for it doesn’t work. Among Internet companies they do more than most.  If more people knew what they were giving up to see that relevant add, they might not make the trade off.

Marc: He’s come around to being a skeptic about a lot of this. He remembers the early days.  A dozen years ago DoubeClick was the leading online advertiser. They were proud that they could do online advertising without knowing the user. He was proud of that and thought it was what the Internet was about. But he quickly ate his words because then DoubleClick acquired a public database firm and said now we can link these nonuser identified accounts with real users. The moment that happened his world view shifted.  There was an enormous problem that’s not going to be fixed by regulations. They immediately filed an objection and DoubleClick backed off and apologized and then the whole thing of privacy settings came along and now you look at Facebook.  If you remember radio dials [Radio? Dials? What are those?] – you changed them and then they  changed back on you. That’ show Facebook is. Nothing is clear, nothing is stable, nothing is transparent.

Google has acquired the technology to do facial recognition but, up until now, have not done it. Is it inevitable that facial recongiztion will become part of the day to day experience?

Marc: Google said that would cross the creepy line. Facebook has embraced it, though.

Jeff: This is a new technology where our response is “oh, this is new, what bad could happen?”. That shouldn’t necessarily be our default reaction.  Imagine how it could be used for much good. After the disaster in Japan – we could find lost children. We can use it to identify terrorists before they get on the plane.

Marc: It was used [in Egypt?] by the police against political protestors. Shouldn’t we have a debate against how its used before we deploy it?

Jeff: The technology is neutral. I’m not saying that everything it does is good but we shouldn’t assume that it’s bad because then we lose the opportunity for good. He doesn’t think we should forbid technology.

Marc: She’s [I lose the “she”, sorry] is trying to regulate a business practice.  He knows very few people in the privacy world who have an interest in regulating technology. They want to know what companies are doing. This is a good discussion. The way we have it is who is using the technology and for what purpose.

Jeff: He agrees but he wants it to be balanced.

Steven: He starts talking about Street View and how that freaks people out.  Some people can say that it gives burglars information they wouldn’t have otherwise. But others just like being able to look at neighborhoods they may move into.

Marc: It’s important to remember who we’re talking about.  If some French cars were coming into neighborhoods and taking photos of people’s houses and cars, people would not be okay with that.

Jeff: You’re making this an emotional conversation by calling them French [Marc says they can be British. Hee.].  If you tell Google that they cannot take a photo from public view, then journalists can’t either.

Marc: It’s not the same thing. [FIGHT!] In regard to Street View, every country outside the US has agreed that it shouldn’t be done.   This isn’t a First Amendment issue.

Steven: If you look at the bigger picture here what you’re dealing with is the capability of the Internet to bring this amazing archive – whether it’s Street View or something like facial recognition – into play here. By and large, he’s not concerned that his book might be scanned and that someone can get a couple sentences of the book when they’re relevant.  In the context of Google Book Search, the idea that may be illegal but it doesn’t seem to make much sense.

Marc: But that lawsuit was not about scanning. Microsoft had active scanning too, but they didn’t assume the right to take the copyright of authors where they had not consented, but Google took that right.  The concern is about privacy and Google’s dominance.

Steven: If Google wasn’t there, there would be another company to step in there. Larry is one of three people that thought of using links to get information.  If Google wouldn’t have emerged, there would still be a Google and these issues would still be discussed. Marc would still have a job.

Jeff: Why should Google have fewer rights than others just because they’re Google?

Google is obviously facing a number of legal concerns right now. Which are the most important ones? WIll they changed what SEOs do for a living.

Steven: Yes. It’s already changed it.  You have to take your hat off to Microsoft and AT&T for doing a great job and bringing these concerns to regulatory groups. Google has to take this very seriously.  They’re sending Eric Schmidt to Congress next week to deal with this. There are important issues that the SEO industry deals with every day that are the forefront of this regulatory issue.

Marc: There’s a lot on Google’s plate. It’s interesting that their Washington office has been growing very rapidly. There was their settlement with the online drug industry that people took notice. There’s the implementation of the Google Buzz settlement that makes Google have to create a privacy program. Most significant, the focus is on monopoly practices and the antitrust investigations.  You can point to particular markets, but if you take a step back, you can see how big Google is in so many different areas. That’s a problem for the company. It’s hard for them to escape the reality of their success.

Jeff: It’s interesting that we love success and we fear success. We love big and then we hate big. Google has to become aware of the problem with this. Google is portrayed as Godzilla but sees itself as Snuffleuphagus. Their biggest issue is morally, where they have the power of God.

Steven: There was an instance a few years ago where Google was down for a few hours and the traffic for Yahoo just shot up. He always suspected that Google did that on purpose. Forever after they’ve used that to show that their competitors are only one click away. Which, they are.

We keep talking about search neutrality. His observation is t hat there is on standard Google saerch result because they’ve done so much personality. How do you say there should be neutrality when the results are custom tailored.

Jeff: Does that kill the SEO industry? You can’t prove ROI that we’ve raised you this much if everyone gets different results. [OH NO, HE DIDNT!] This goes back to privacy.  The business battle is over signal generation.  The notion that there is one search result is a false nostalgia like it was good when we only had three televion channels

Marc: He’s not a fan of SEO, but he is a fan of content promotion.  They’re always trying to be on the front lines and raising isues people haven’t thought about. Because of the Senate meeting taking place next week they filed a new complaint at the FTC which looked at the changes at the search algorithm pre-Google acquisition of YouTube and post-Google acquisition. They looked at the defaults of YouTube before the acquisition and found the default ranking was hits, user rankings (stars), and then relevance (in that order).  Post acquisition, relevance became the default and you had to change your settings to get back to hits or rankings.  That’s the first half of the story. Post the change, if you did a search using the term [privacy] in YouTube’s search, Google’s videos came up in the top five. If you use any of the alternative metrics, the number drops to 1 or 0.

Steven: Isn’t this special that Google’s privacy stuff comes up when you type [privacy] in YouTube. Just because we have this suspicious circumstance, do we have the right to request Google give us the secret to their algorithms. That’s a big question.

With Larry coming back as CEO there have been some changes. Google has killed more products in the last month than he can remember them doing in forever. Is Google changing direction? Is this a good thing?

Steven: It’s not a new direction, but trying to get back to the originals direction there. It’s a mix bag of stuff that they discontinued. One thing he found interesting was the slide stuff. The guy who invented Slide left the company and then they got rid of it. Shareholders might want to know why they’re spending 180 millions for a company you’re getting rid of a year later. He thinks that Larry sees things from a product end. He wants a coherent product strategy. He wants to keep new products coming but he wants to get away fat. He doesn’t think Google can operate as it has as a clunky bureaucracy. They want ambitious people who get angry when they see bureaucracy.  This is not a new direction for Google, but a reassertion of its old direction.

Jeff: What’s the impact going forward on innovation inside and outside? Is the 20 percent rule still happening?

Steven:  For certain projects, Google is still a welcoming company toward innovative new products. The 20 percent thing was not quite as cockedged, but it’s been useful. There’s always been the risk of acquisitions not working at Google. What’s made Google unique is they’ve had acquisitions that have done better than they imagined. Like YouTube for example.  And then Android, a small acquisition they developed in-house. DoubleClick? They’ve done some great acquisitions there.

Marc: Can you explain the thinking behind Zagat?

Steve: They tried to use the reviews from Yelp. They went too far and got spanked. Reviews are a super important signal for them.  They need to keep the culture of Zagat going. If they can, it will fit in very neatly inside Google.

Jeff: They need to view Zagat as a platform, not a content company. Where they got in trouble with books, that’s where they got in trouble – by touching them.

What will the hot topics be in 5 years?

Steven: How we get back from space in the Google spaceship.

Marc: Following the breakup, who is going to be running YouTube and whose going to have Search…

Jeff: He has no punchline. The ubiquity of connectivity is going to have a change that’s larger in society than Google itself. That’s why he thinks mobile is important.


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