Is Google Being Reckless?

| About: Alphabet Inc. (GOOG)

When it rains, it pours. Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) recent series of missteps is starting to look like more than just a run of bad luck. It's starting to look like a consistent pattern of poor judgment whose root cause sits in the corner office in Mountain View.

Let's look at a few examples.

Most recently, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Google has been secretly circumventing the consumer privacy settings on Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) Safari browser (which just happens to be the world's most widely used mobile browser, in addition to being standard on all Macs). A team at Stanford discovered that Google found a clever way to trick Safari into accepting Google's DoubleClick ad tracking cookies, which it normally rejects. This allowed Google to track Safari users across the web without their knowledge. When confronted with this fact by the Journal, Google said that it was merely trying to help its users (who, in Google's view, obviously want to be tracked in order to get all the benefits Google offers in exchange, such as more targeted ads), but that - oops, sorry - it didn't realize how far its wayward programmers had gone. And now that the Journal brought the subject up, it would abandon this practice immediately. It's hard to decide what is more ridiculous about this defense: The claim that the secret tracking was actually in the users' best interest, or the claim that Google didn't know what its programmers were up to.

But what's really amazing about this story is that it's far from an isolated incident. Just a week before this latest covert tracking episode, we had the bungled launch of Google's new privacy policy, in which it unilaterally granted itself the right to put everything it knows about you in one central pot, the better to target you with ads. It's not illegitimate for Google to want to optimize its advertising business. Google does, after all, offer consumers some pretty sophisticated tools for free. And consumers do have choices. If they don't like what Google is doing, they can switch to Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Bing and Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) for search and mail, and go back to Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) for social networking (if they ever left it in the first place).

But government and business users are another story. Google at first said the new privacy policy would apply to everyone. Then it implied that some enterprise users would be exempt. But it did this in a confusing and ambiguous way. I've written about this in detail elsewhere, so I won't rehash the issue here. However, it's disturbing to observe that Google compounded its initial PR error with a needlessly flippant response to the European Union's expression of concern about the new policy. Speaking as someone who lived in Europe for years, I can tell you that ticking off the EU is a big mistake. Wave a red flag in front of this bull, and it will charge. Google is going down the same road in Europe that Microsoft went down a decade ago, and we know how well that worked out, don't we.

Another recent example is the disgraceful episode where Google employees in India shamelessly stole the content of a competitor's online business directory in Kenya. To its credit, Google swiftly acknowledged and disowned the bad behavior. But then days later another small competitor, OpenStreet Map, complained that the same Google group was deliberately defacing its online maps, which compete with Google Maps. Now no one is claiming that Google's management approved this slimy behavior. But the multiple occurrences within such a short time span certainly suggest a decided decline in the quality of "adult supervision" emanating from Mountain View.

There was also the stealth announcement that Google's Blogger service will now make it easier for dictatorships around the planet to censor blog posts they don't like. The Orwellian language in which this change was announced is particularly noteworthy:

Migrating to localized domains will allow us to continue promoting free expression and responsible publishing while providing greater flexibility in complying with valid removal requests pursuant to local law.

I happen to be one of those who admired Sergei Brin's courage in saying no to the Chinese censorship machine. I'm sorry to see that his idealism - too rare in the world of multinational tech behemoths - is no longer in vogue at Google.

But what really bothers me about this series of unfortunate policy missteps is the impact it's having on Google's products. I'm not the only one to have noticed the increasingly obvious decline in the quality of Google's search results. I have used Google search since 1998. Since then I've done thousands of Google searches and until recently have been reasonably satisfied with the results. Considering that I never click on the ads, I can't complain about the cost. But in recent months I've noticed many small but disturbing changes that diminish the quality both of the user interface and of the search results themselves.

I'm not just talking about the silly effort to jam Google+ down our throats by giving it undeserved favorable placement in Google search results. That doesn't bother me much since I don't use Google+. But there are many other things that do bother me. For example, there are more and more ads at the top of the page and they are harder than ever to distinguish from actual search results. And there is more and more search spam. As a practical matter, I find it almost impossible anymore to conduct useful Google searches for product information. You are immediately inundated with third tier e-commerce sites that want to sell you something, not educate you. For many products, it's actually much better to go straight to Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and read the reader reviews rather than waste time on Google.

Then there is Wikipedia. For almost any Google search on a scientific or historical topic, the first result returned is the Wikipedia article. Fine, I love Wikipedia. But now I go straight there instead of bothering to start with Google. And then there are the small changes in query commands or results formatting that seem expressly designed to annoy professional searchers. For instance, Google has made it more cumbersome to see the cached version of a web page where the search terms are highlighted. And Google's infuriating habit of returning many result pages that don't even contain my search terms at all (unless I put them in quote marks, and sometimes not even then) is only getting worse.

It's gotten to the point where for the first time ever I've started experimenting with Bing. I have to admit the results have impressed me. I can't say they are always better than Google, but they are certainly no worse, and often they are more relevant. That's a tough admission to make for someone with well over ten thousand Google searches under his belt. I've actually put Bing on my browser's favorites bar, and from time to time I hit it. If Bing offered an advanced search page like Google (instead of just making this an option once you've done your search), I might actually switch over entirely.

In short, my concern is that Google management is taking its eye off the ball. It is making unforced errors left and right, while allowing the quality of its flagship product to slip. The most common explanation for this trend of course is that it's all due to Larry Page's Facebook obsession. And there is surely much truth to this view. In fact, it's not a bad thing for a CEO and his management team to be very, very focused on their most disruptive competitor (compare IBM (NYSE:IBM) vs. Microsoft, Microsoft vs. Google, or indeed Jobs vs. Android). But in Google's case I think something more is at work. For want of a better term, I call it recklessness as a management philosophy. Now that Google's former adult-in-residence Eric Schmidt is stepping away from his role in the company, this issue needs to be raised in a serious way. I don't know if it's just a youthful phase that Larry Page and his management team will grow out of, or if it's a lasting personality trait that won't change. But one thing is certain: If this keeps up, it won't end well for Google.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.