Google: Leverage the world’s information to make money off of users
In life, our time is our most valuable resource. In this age of tech, we must be aware that tech companies’ goals are frequently orthogonal to this value framework.
That’s a really broad statement; in this article I’m going to criticize some of Google’s recent software changes. Specifically, we’re going to look at Google’s core search applications. This criticism should highlight the transformation from a company that started with the goal of “indexing the world’s knowledge and making it universally accessible” to something more like “exploit the world’s information to serve ads and make money off of people”.
First, I need to extend the above value proposition to a core axiom: valuing time means being thoughtful. It means evaluating what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how much time we’re spending doing it. It follows that mindless consumption (of video, of news links, of online content) does not align with the above value. The core problem is that humans are susceptible to distraction and addiction. The thumbnails YouTube shows you are algorithmically optimized to make you click (actually they’re optimized for more than that: to keep you on the platform for as long as possible). The videos YouTube proposes are not, however, at all optimized to help you make the best use of your time.
This is not to say that there is not some room for “suggestion” or for “discovery”. There may be a product or software that solves a problem that you have. It’s good that you find that solution. It’s worthwhile to find some articles or to come across research that helps you improve your life. “Advertising” can play a role in solving this problem. The core problem here, however, is that advertisers’ goals and your goals as a human are nearly orthogonal. Maybe 1% of the time, the content or service that is suggested to you is actually worth considering. Maybe 1% of the time, the advertising technique that is used isn’t based on logical fallacy, and is instead based in data or real research.
[The difference between a librarian and Google is that the librarian is not compensated based on how many books you click on. The librarian simply wants to help you use your time to find a fulfilling and/or question-answering piece of literature.]
Now, on to Google’s brilliant recent changes.
I once was a Google fanboy. Before I worked at the company as an intern, I loved the services it provided. Before I worked as a fulltime employee, I was thrilled to be starting my career there. After working as a fulltime employee, I realized how disgusting the company really was. Increasingly I use alternative products and services because I know the value of my time. (My criticism here entirely omit personal data and privacy concerns that others frequently raise).
Google Now, Android
The core Google App on the Pixel offers search, google settings access, and a feed of “personalized” content, once called Google Now. Google Now offered content like weather, currency conversion, stock prices (this was always an absolutely obnoxious choice by tech companies in my opinion: no rational investor should be looking at stocks daily), bills, upcoming travel and trips, etc. At some point, the feed also began to include personalized web results — recently updated articles that seemed to correlate with your search history. Google knows what interests you, so why not use it to get more of your time and attention? Previously, this feed was customizable. Users could remove all of the distracting garbage and get only the actually useful content. No longer: the starting feed is now a barrage of trash articles with almost zero value to users. It cannot be hidden, and the articles cannot be permanently discarded. Even internally, the changes have faced substantial criticism. Most significantly, even if you want to use the “useful” part of this software, you have to get past the “garbage-content gate-keeper”.
Like most of these sorts of feeds, this one is always “evergreen” (a tech term for always having new, “fresh” content). It’s not endless, yet. Google now, once a really cool idea, once useful, has transformed into another garbage app.
Why’d this happen? Unsurprisingly, providing users with only useful content turned out not to be very lucrative. Users don’t travel that often; they don’t need currency conversion frequently; even weather is only checked a couple times per day. How to drive engagement metrics higher? Ah yes, let’s put stuff in front of you that you’ve shown an interest in. Let’s add clickbait.
iPhone, Google Search
Google has a search app for iPhone too. For Google ecosystem users with iPhones, it was pretty useful, providing much of the same functionality that the Google Now app on android provided. Recently, it added a new “feature”: trending searches recommendations that appear always. These delightfully pp up to distract you from the (theoretically) useful query you actually hoped to ask. “Oh, what was I going to look for? Nevermind, let me read about some stupid pop culture phenomenon” (see #3 in recommendations below). Gossip is a disgusting obsession of humanity. Great to see that Google wants to compete with People magazine and its ilk. If I wanted news, or if I wanted to know what was trending, I would search google for “google trending”. I don’t need Google to help me manage my interests; I need it to help me find the content I’m looking for.
Oh, here’s one more, iOS search app has a trending widget.
Just in case you needed some more uselessness in your life. How nice! I guess there wasn’t a more productive feature for that team to work on.
Don’t be mistaken, Google benefits from your engagement with this garbage. Every search is an opportunity to show you search ads (the ones that appear at the top of your search results). Every article you open is an opportunity for Google’s ad network to serve you ads on the article’s page (these are known as display ads and show throughout the article and on the sides of the web page; Google serves a substantial portion of display ads; If you see an ad, it’s highly probable it was served by Google).
In general, the move toward non-customizability, and race-to-the-bottom engagement metrics characterize much of Google’s efforts (and really those of almost all tech companies). This sort of work is truly disgusting. It’s also unsurprising. There’s a “market” for this. Buzzfeed and other content creators have capitalized on the apparent desire of people to be distracted from the real world. Psychological studies show that this sort of thing is harmful to your emotional wellbeing, but this means little in a world where people smoke cigarettes and vote for Donald Trump against their best interests.
Thanks, Google. Thanks, market economics. Thanks uninformed consumers. Thanks shitty business executives that Google now hires as product managers who care only about numbers and their own bonuses. Thanks government for not regulating anything.
Just because a company can make money doing something, doesn’t mean it should make money doing that thing. Companies can make money manufacturing cigarettes. But cigarettes are evil: they exploit human tendencies and human nature to make money. They’re designed to be addictive. That’s the definition of evil. Tech companies do the same thing with software like that shown above. Most people simply aren’t aware of it. Just because people are dumb / uninformed enough to think that they want this sort of content doesn’t mean it should be built.
This sort of effort by Google exemplifies that it’s “Don’t be evil” mantra is just tech doublespeak bullshit.
One of Google’s first products was Gmail. It revolutionized email, helping users sort through spam. It made an intuitive, useful interface to aid users in a daily chore. It was designed to help users to get to what mattered in their daily communications, so that they could get back to living their actual lives. That’s the Google I miss.
Now, Google is just another one of the spammers. (And we haven’t even started talking about YouTube’s top-level goal of billions of daily watch hours, or Google Maps top-level goal of millions of daily notifications. Stories for a later article.)