Late last week I found myself watching a documentary on organized crime in New York City. Focused on the Gambino crime family, this documentary illustrated how the mafia (which included the Gambino and other families that made up the Cosa Nostra) had their hands in on nearly every facet of city life. From restaurants and delivery trucks to corrupting the law enforcement and legal systems – the organization was in control.
Less than an even a decade ago Google was simply a search engine. A player in the growing Internet that consumers and the public were excited to use and would eagerly embrace in their everyday lives. In the years following their cult like launch however, a blend of strategy and brute force has catapulted them to become what I now see as the Internet’s first organized crime family.
I must admit that drawing a comparison like this is a bit of a reach without conducting any research. So that’s what I started to do… And in the past few days I’ve learned that while not quite “criminal” in their everyday actions, Google’s dominance and reach has resulted in their becoming a monolithic organization. Precisely, I’m sure, as planned.
The Foundations of Activity
For the mafia to operate to its full potential there needs to be structure and reach that allows all activity to be seen, heard, felt and eventually capitalized on. Most of what the public knows about true organized crime is that these organization penetrated into labor unions, law enforcement agencies and massive commercial organizations. Unbeknownst to them, the public ends up living life feeding these organizations. Whether it be through paying higher prices or casting favorable public opinion behind devious characters – much of what organized crime controls is done so with a level of transparency that can never be rivaled.
Having worked in the search engine marketing industry, I’m more aware of what Google sees than most others would. Most of my blog’s readers know as much or more about Google’s reach than I do – but the public still remains unaware.
Google’s Bread and Butter
Let’s take a deeper look at the types of information that Google has access to, starting with their core competency – a simple search query on Google.com.
Google Account holders and Google Toolbar users are enrolled in something called Web History. Web History allows Google to track what you search for, and more importantly – what you click through to. Google’s willingness to track what you’re searching for and viewing online is masked at a usability feature. In fact, you can log into Web History and see any of the following types of Google Search results that you’ve clicked through to, including:
• Sponsored Links
Now, let’s be clear about a few things. Google Account holders have an ability to view their Web History and look at some of the information that Google is recording. Should we be naive and believe that Google’s being completely transparent here?
I vote no. And I hope with some more careful consideration – you may agree.
Google’s Penetrating Reach
Google is no longer simply a search engine. They may have started that way, but have since penetrated deep into the everyday lives of billions of people worldwide… They’ve done that not by forcing themselves on you – but acquiring or fueling the sites, services and networks the public relies on most frequently.
While I don’t like relying on Wikipedia for too much, I’d ask that you take a look of the List of acquisitions by Google article that can be found there. Having acquired more than 50 companies, Google now has the ability to control, monitor and view user activities across an overwhelming portfolio of products and services.
Here’s a comprehensive list I’ve built of known product and service sites. While I’m sure that I’m missing some from my list, the key here is the massive scale and reach that Google now has.
Google’s Standalone Applications
• AdWords Editor
• Gmail/Google Notifier
• Photos Screensaver
• Picasa Web Albums Uploader
• Secure Access
• Web Accelerator
Google Application & Desktop Extensions
• Blogger Web Comments
• Dashboard Widgets for Mac OS X
• Google Gears
• Send to Mobile
• Google Toolbar
Google’s Mobile Products & Services
• Blogger Mobile
• Google Mobilizer
• Mobile Updater
• Mobile Search
• Product Search
• Picasa Web Albums
• Google Latitude
Google’s Web Based Products
• AdWords Website Optimizer
• Audio Ads
• TV Ads
Google’s Communication and Publishing Tools
• 3D Warehouse
• Friend Connect
• Marratech e-Meeting
• Page Creator
• Picasa Web Albums
Google’s Developer Tools
• App Engine
• Mashup Editor
• Subscribed Links
• Webmaster Tools
• Web Toolkit
Google’s Geographical and Mapping Tools
• Map Maker
• Ride Finder
Google’s Search Based Products
• Accessible Search
• Blog search
• Book Search (Previously Google Print)
• Code Search
• Directory (Google China)
• Experimental Search
• Image Labeler
• Image Search
• Language Tools
• News Archive Search
• Patent Search
• Product Search (Previously Froogle)
• University Search
• U.S. Government Search
• Voice Local Search
• Web History
• Web Search
Google’s Statistical Tools
• Google Search Appliance
• Google Mini
Other / Miscellaneous Products
Google’s Key Players are Products and Services
Through decades of research conducted by prying journalists and investigative organizations like the FBI, we know that organized crime families have a strong hierarchy in place. This hierarchy puts the most influential and powerful people in a position to orchastrate specialists beneath them. This differs for Google in the sense that products and services take the place of people. What I mean by saying this is that Google’s brand and services represent leaders and shot callers that monitor and profit from all of our Internet based activity.
I am by no means an expert on organized crime, or Google for that matter. My years of being an Internet professional though suggest that the following products and services are the key players underneath the Google family:
• AdWords & AdSense
These five players have market reach and dominance that is unrivaled by any other non-Google organization. The majority of Internet users rely on these five core services – and as a result, Google stands to profit.
The Profitability of Internet Dominance
What I find most disturbing about this trend though is that like criminal organizations in the past, Google is driving up the price for advertisers and consumers with the incredible control they have over all of the market variables. If you’re a web site owner, you’re likely providing Google access and permission to analyze what your visitors are doing on your site. If you have a GMail account, they’re able to parse the content of your emails and tailor advertising accordingly. If you’re an AdSense advertiser, you’re paying a premium through a veiled cost per click system that Google developed in a proprietary way to maximize their profit with. And if you’re relying on AdSense, or “Webmaster welfare” as Sugarrae has termed the program – you’re simply fueling Google’s greed further while minimizing your own profitability.
When Google first went public, their IPO priced each share of the organization’s stock at $85. At one point in late 2007, GOOG shares traded at $711.25 – an increase of more than 736% over the IPO’s value.
This cult like following, both in technology sectors as well as in public appeal forced Google to not only become a household name, but even a verb. To this day you can go practically anywhere and overhear someone having “Googled” something, or even worse, be willing to “GMail” you something. Which leads me to…
The Public Appeal and Fascination
Any staunch Google supporter already thinks I’m both crazy and stupid for suggesting that Google’s operation mirrors that of a criminal organization. Keeping with the comparison of Google’s brands mirroring various mafioso of the past, I’m now going to go out on a limb and state that to me, Google is the modern day Teflon Don – John Gotti.
John Gotti’s following came through two methods. First, he struck fear in the eyes of the opposition and second, he served as public figure for people and the media to fall in love with.
CNN once wrote that Gotti murdered his way to the top of the Gambino crime family. I think Google did the same exact thing – and here’s why.
Back in the days before the “big three” search engines, Google results were so accurate that they were shown to anyone conducting searches on major online properties like Yahoo!, AOL and dozens of others. While most simply appreciated the accuracy of clean and relevant search results, Google was deviating from their “do no evil” mantra that many foolishly believe exists today.
One by one, Google effectively sniped the competition either by becoming a provider of materials essential for business (as was the case with the search results I referenced above) or, by simply buying out entire organizations and overhauling or eliminating them. Since their creation, Google has acquired more than fifty leading Internet based organizations… These acquisitions were entirely strategic and have gone on to help feed the Google family of operations. Some of the properties simply stood in their way and were later shut down. Others, often commanding billion dollar buyouts like YouTube and DoubleClick primed Google to reach the majority of Internet users across all demographics and gain insight into every little nuance of their online behavior.
While Google was either eliminating the competition or forcing them to rely on Google’s materials to survive, they placed an emphasis on winning public opinion. John Gotti was famous and untouchable in his Queens neighborhood because he often threw parties, picnics and gave handouts to those that surrounded him. Google is no different, and as an example of that – I’d simply point to GMail being the leading free email service or AdSense and Google Analytics as both free and market leading tools for webmasters to run an online business.
Comparing Google’s Services to Criminal Activities
It was suggested to me that Google’s services actually mirror a number of ways in which a criminal family or organization would work. Google’s AdSense program for example was compared to prostitution, their free applications likened to the distribution of drugs, and Google AdWords being similar to Google’s offering of “protection” for web site owners. I can certainly see and understand these comparisons but am interested too in how readers of this post will react to those comparisons being drawn… So please do leave comments to further the discussion.
Thoughts from Other Search Marketers
I tend to be anti-Google when it comes to my opinion, so I asked a few contacts from the search marketing industry for their thoughts and opinions on my comparing Google to an organized crime family. Here’s some of the feedback I got that was worth sharing:
“It’s apparent that Google wants to get into everything, at least wherever they can stick AdWords. For the company that has made statements to the fact that “search is core to them” they have gone a long way from search… Google Docs, GMail, Calendar, Talk… Shall I go on? http://www.google.com/intl/en/options/ clearly shows that although the Google Search page remains simple, the company is involved in tons of stuff and upsetting many business models…In fact I’m just waiting for the day that we will hear the announcement, “Google acquires Wal-Mart.”
“Follow their rules or else, they pay you but can up their take without notice and you get away with more if you produce for them… That’s Google for you. Mobsters have to stay under the radar & deal with cops & other families. Google answers to no one.”
Greg Boser (@GregBoser), while not offering any direct comments commended the comparison and said he looked forward to reading the post when it was completed. Social media specialist Brent Csutoras (@BrentCsutoras) and optimization expert Andrew Gerhart (@andrewgerhart) both thought that Google is more like a government than a crime family.
“Well, a crime family works under the law. Google works above the law. If you are going to compare them to a corrupt organization I would compare them to a corrupt government who puts the koolaid in the water supply.”
“Even though, in effect, Google has a stranglehold on internet advertising and marketing options – much like a crime syndicate can control and dictate how businesses operate and do or do not succeed in a given location or market – there is one key difference. The mob is self aware. They don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are.”
Please Help Further The Conversation…
Anytime someone takes interest in making such a harsh comparison, strong opinions will be formed. I am not saying that I am right or wrong for drawing or writing of the comparisons made. The above is simply my opinion – and I want to hear more from you, the reader. Please help the discussion continue through the commenting feature below.