Google: Too Big to Love?

Alphabet, née Google, woke up this morning as the most valuable company in the world. As a known Google fan — and minor shareholder — I am glad for that. Google has indeed built tremendous value for all its users and for itself and it’s good to see the market recognize that.

But I fear what follows. If the company thinks it had trouble especially in Europe before — with fights over copyright, privacy, data security, and local taxation — just wait for what comes next, now that it is The Biggest Company on Earth. It has become an even bigger, easier target.

I can practically write the magazine cover stories, publishers’ complaints, and politicians’ speeches in Europe and elsewhere warning of the power of The Biggest Company on Earth and suggesting that somebody should break it up just because. Because big.

Google is now too big to love.

What should Google do? What can it do?

The company has begun heading down the right path. Google is making friends among European publishers with its Digital News Initiative, which is yielding important advances, including Accelerated Mobile Pages (disclosure: I was included in the organizing meeting for DNI). I’ve looked this gift horse in the mouth, though, complaining that so long as DNI remains a European initiative it shows that Google cares more about Brussels — fearing hostile legislation and regulation there — than about journalism. But that is easily fixed if Google pays attention to how it can help inform society — and help those who do — elsewhere. Google also needs to demonstrate that news is more than a PR and lobbying effort; it is key to its strategy of organizing the world’s information.

Google has much to teach my industry about how to generate and gather signals about users to deliver them greater relevance and value; about how to analyze and act on that data; about new advertising strategies and technologies; about how people use content and view video; about how people use their mobile devices and how that opens up new paths to relevance; about how to reconsider distribution and the outmoded concept of content-as-destination; about how artificial intelligence could be used to find news and information people can use; and much more. We in media need to be willing to listen; Google needs to be willing to share.

At the recent DLD conference in Munich, I was gobsmacked to hear News Corp. CEO and reliable Murdoch mouthpiece Robert Thomson move past his customary witty snipes at Google to say how much he likes and respects new Google CEO Sundar Pichai. That is practically a peace offering. And it is a good indication that Google and Pichai are setting a new tone for the company, appearing less arrogant (geeks sometimes just seem that way) and more open. That is important.

Google would be wise to find the forums where it can engage with leaders in the industries it threatens, which is growing to be just about every sector of the economy: automotive, health, travel, education, energy…. It can and should find ways to collaborate when possible as it has begun to do with media.

Google also needs to learn to brag more. That seems counterintuitive to them, I realize. They seem afraid to stick their heads up and boast about how they are advancing technology and science without being branded technological Utopians and overlords. But Google is doing much to advance society, making us more informed, connecting us with each other, and investing in the original research that tragically isn’t being done as much in other companies — ah, Bell Labs — and universities.

Google needs to learn to be more open to telling us about its wonders and also more open to listening to our fears and our wishes. As The Biggest Company on Earth, it can no longer afford to play the silent giant. I realize that is antithetical to the ways of the Valley but the quieter Google is, the more it is feared. The company needs to learn to speak and allow its people to.

Once upon a time, when Microsoft was the Biggest — and Most Feared — Company on Earth (how quaint that seems now, eh?) and when it was the target of those pesky and expensive European regulators and politicians, it had to learn to be open. It had to learn to be human. Remember that Microsoft even allowed employees to blog; this is what led to the phenomenon that was Scoble. Microsoft freed its employees to speak and show that it wasn’t just a program, it was people.

Google isn’t just an algorithm. It, too, is people, who should be freed to connect and share. The funny thing is that when it comes to opening up, Google fears the public more than we fear it. But I see the benefit of opening up every time Matt Cutts appears on This Week in Google, sharing his experience, worldview, and wisdom with generosity, grace, and humility. Google is filled with thousands of Matts. They could make countless friends.

I care deeply about building bridges from my field, journalism, to technology — not only for the benefit of the news industry and its future but also to protect the net from the regulation that will result if Google becomes too big an object of fear. Google — and Facebook like it — need ambassadors who can explain them to the world and the world they affect to them.

So congratulations, Alphabet/Google for your swift and amazing rise to the top. Now don’t let anyone accuse you of looking down on us.

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