Google (GOOG) recently made an official announcement offering a Personal Blocklist extension for Chrome browser users. I am weighted down with far too many Chrome browser extensions already, so I haven’t tested this one. Technology press coverage of the news slightly surprised me:
Google (GOOG) is concluding that if people are so up in arms about its declining search results, then it will let the masses get to work in helping refine its search technology…
While amusing (I’ve supplemented my TechCrunch reading with GigaOM lately), it was more in line with what I expect from The Onion. Yet it is correct. The size and growth of the spam problem warrants this reaction from the press, as well as the public and many businesses. All express frustration with spam and electronic detritus.
Google is addressing spam with a two-pronged initiative, it seems to me. The Google War on Content Farms of a few weeks earlier was directed at particularly spammy e-commerce merchants and services. The Personal Blocklist browser extension is the second part, and directed at e-commerce consumers and users in general.
In a worst case scenario, this can be viewed as a sign that the internet will soon become almost unusable due to clutter from impenetrable volumes of advertisements and duplication of once original but now outdated content. That is the most generalized definition of spam. As a matter of quality control Google DOES need to provide meaningful results, with a minimum of spam, to Google Search 2.0. users.
What can be done?
Is Google evil?
Is it Google’s fault? Is Google greedy and betraying the pubic’s best interests? No, not particularly.
Google is a publicly traded company, a business with stockholders. It is not a public utility. Google employees and Google operations are not funded by the taxpayers of any nation. It is very easy to forget that. The model of free online services is wonderful, and benefits everyone, everywhere, particularly in countries where what is considered a nominal cost in the U.S.A. would be prohibitively expensive. Much of the U.S. and global economy, as well as the public in general, are dependent upon free Google services to some degree. This is analogous to physical infrastructure. It is digital infrastructure.
Infrastructure is usually part of the public sector
In order to fund the model of free internet search, and free Google products, Google sells online advertising. And so the World Wide Web’s spam problem reduces in some part, though not entirely, to the principal agent problem. Moral hazard. Conflict of interest.
Avoidance of moral hazard is a major benefit of having a public sector, and government. When the public sector functions as it should, it reduces biased behavior due to profit-seeking and other motives.
The dilemma for Google as a company
Google needs the advertising revenue provided by AdSense customers (some of whom are the Content Farmers). That is why Google must offer a quality product to the public. Not because the public are Google customers. Google search is free of charge. While it may be unethical to sell a poor-quality product, there is no law against offering crummy goods and services free of charge. That happens all the time. No one wants something that is useless or gives much less value than an alternative provider.
Good corporate citizenship is a consideration, but only a minor one. Google must provide a quality product because the public’s use of free Google products drives revenue from customers. Google is obligated to:
- Customers. Primary customers are advertisers and revenue-generating businesses, for-profit and otherwise
- Employees. The people whose paycheck it provides for going to work every day
Remember though that the motivation for these obligations is that they may in turn give value to shareholders in the company itself.
The war against the Content Farmers is dangerous for Google. The Google anti-spam efforts must be targeted enough to cut spam and increase search user satisfaction while not alienating the source of funding that sustains Google and allows the company to offer services at all.