Founder at TagMan
04 June 2004 11:36am
Unless you’ve been bivouacking in the Andes or similar, then chances are you’ve read a headline or two about Google in the last few months. Recent coverage has been about the proposed IPO, but before that the trade press were debating the merits of Google’s new Gmail email service, which came hot on the heals of a new anti-Popup toolbar. All of these things seem very un-Google.
Google emerged as the dominant force in search technology almost over night. The success of Google has been founded upon its easy-to-use technology that actually works, and the immense consumer demand for a decent search tool meant the kind of widespread word of mouth recommendations that money just can’t buy. Their simple design and banner free environment has created a strong identity that bestows values of the early Internet, before the dotcom bubble.
Despite this admiration, I can’t shake the feeling that the company is suffering from something of an identity crisis. On the one hand, the company promotes an image of innovation and employee freedom, and eschews the advances of Microsoft on moral grounds (citing the software giant’s anti-competitive practices). Yet at the same time, many of Google’s core activities raise ethical questions of their own.
The contextual advertising proposed as part of the Gmail service may be clever Direct Marketing but it also raises some potentially serious data protection issues. Essentially Google are asking consumers to allow advertisers to read their emails and they who know what advertisers will be learning about you when you click on one of their sponsored links.
Prior to this, Google ’s Popup Blocker could itself be seen as anti-competitive, given that Popups are a direct competitor to Google keywords for online advertising revenue.
Now there’s the IPO that is likely to value the company at something like 174 times earnings and 21 times sales. Not even Microsoft in its early years was rated so highly. Stranger still is the fact that these new Google shares will have watered down voting rights. Larry Page and Serge Brin appear to want to have their cake and eat it, most un-Google. According to the prospectus, the company has always been motivated by a desire to “make the world a better place.” But once you develop a marketing position like that, you have to live and breathe it across all your activities.
Google’s rise to the top should in itself be a watchword for caution. Not long ago, Yahoo was the darling of the search engine industry, with a valuation to reflect its seemingly unassailable position. Then along came Google and the rest is history. The challenge for any Internet business is to build long-term loyalty, even when the company itself may be lacking in heritage. Who’s to say there isn’t another technology in development, capable of out-googling Google?
All the money in the world will not guarantee Google ownership of the next major advancement in search technology and given their dominant position one wonders why they are risking everything for the sake of a few dollars more. Profiteering is not what Google has been about in the past but that’s exactly what these new investors will want, whether they have any say in the matter or not.
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