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Google As Dictator: 5 Most Devious Things It Could Do, If It Were Evil

 

Imagine if we all lived in the Kingdom of Google. The emperor has immense amounts of information, is a brilliant strategist and continues to grow in power. Now imagine for a minute that the emperor is not only brilliant, but also devious . What type of patterns of behavior might we expect in this hypothetical land of Google? What kind of threats would loom for the citizenry? This article takes a hypothetical look at just this issue. It's intended to be an opinion piece and spark some intelligent discussion. Though I've tried to keep the tone light and avoid any "tin-foil hat conspiracy theory" style thinking, only you can be the judge as to whether I've succeeded.

Important disclaimer: I'm not accusing Google of anything here. I'm just pointing out the degree to which certain products are successful and how, if Google were evil, what it could do to exploit its power.

5 Most Devious Things Google Could Do, If It Were Evil

1. Favor the emperor's chosen few: Google could provide some search ranking preference to sites that are running on Blogger (its blogging platform) vs. those on other platforms (such as WordPress or TypePad). This one is easy to do, and would be extremely hard to detect as so many factors play a role in the determination of the Google Search Rankings. The impact is that more and more citizens try to become some of those "privileged few".

2. Punish Citizens Without Due Process: This is a hot button of mine. If you are a Google AdSense customer or for that matter operate any website, Google could (in theory) ban your website from the Google search engine for alleged infractions. In this regard, Google is both judge and jury and you are guilty until proven innocent. There are literally hundreds of articles on the web where dismayed website operators discuss how they got banned from the Google search rankings, banned from using AdSense, etc. In many of these cases, Google may have been right and may have had a legitimate case. That's not my point. The point is that this entire process is not transparent and Google has full, unfettered discretion. Nothing helps keep the citizens in line with the emperor's wishes more than some random punishments (or punishments that seem random).

3. Know Who Is Related To Who: This is an interesting (and subtle) one. Now that more and more Google products are using a central Google account for authentication (Gmail, AdWords, AdSense, Webmaster Tools, Blogger, etc.) it is actually quite possible for Google to know exactly which sites you are affiliated with. Normally, this is not a bad thing (one could argue that this helps Google deliver better search results). The danger here is that not only could Google exact punishment on a given website, it could do so on other related websites. This is like a citizen being fearful of antagonizing the emperor for fear that not only would she be penalized, but that such penalties could impact her friends and family as well.

4. Force Businesses To Advertise: Since Google "knows" which websites are advertising (and which are not), it could lower the organic search rankings for sites that it knows have purchased Google AdWords in the past. Though this seems counter-intuitive (Google would be penalizing its customers), in the short-run, there is economic incentive to do so. The fact that the search rankings themselves are a closely guarded secret means that no individual business would ever be able to prove that Google is intentionally giving it a lower organic ranking to extract more ad dollars. This is a bit like the emperor controlling the local newspaper. The emperor gets to decide who gets free mention in the editorial parts of the paper and who is forced to buy advertising.

5. Change The Laws And Keep Them Obfuscated: There is an entire industry build around search engine optimization (which for most means Google Optimization). Hundreds of people spend their lives trying to understand the Google algorithm and determine how best to earn the privilege of ranking their clients high for particular searches. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it ties into all of the points above. The search rankings have become so important for so many customers, and the underlying algorithm is so ill-understood that there is major potential for abuse. Should it ever come to be that Google needs to exert even more influence amongst the citizenry, all it has to do is change the laws of the land and send the masses scurrying to try and figure out what the new rules are.

There are many more possible problems with Google's growing power. The ones that bother me the most are at the heart of many monopolies: product bundling. As Google amasses a larger and larger pool of products that touch millions of people, the potential to start tying these products together in ways that do not benefit everyone is increasing.

What are your thoughts? Am I totally off-base with any or all of these particular concerns? Is Google a benevolent dictator, a not-so-benevolent dictator – or not a dictator at all?

 



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