Too big to trust? Google's growing credibility gap

The new Google is not the old Google, and people are starting to take notice

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Once you understand that, you understand why Google does what it does. That's simply its business. Nothing is free, so if you won't pay cash, you'll have to pay with personal information. That business model has been around for decades; Google didn't invent that business model, but Google did figure out how to make it work globally, pervasively, appealingly, and nearly instantaneously.

I don't blame Google for doing that, but I blame it for being nontransparent. Putting unmarked sponsored ads in the "regular" search results section is misleading, because people have been trained by Google to see that section of the search results as neutral. They are in fact not. Once you know that, you never quite trust Google search results again. (Yes, Bing's results are similarly tainted. But Microsoft never promised to do no evil, and most people use Google.)

The issue gets trickier when you move away from search and into apps, whether Chrome OS or Android. Free apps are what people want, so app makers end up doing the same data-mining that sustains Google Search, using a shadowy network of companies to do the work for them. The result is that many mobile apps have the same kind of scams you see on the Web. Sometimes Google is in that mix (innocently, or at least not looking too hard), sometimes it is not. That's why opt-in permissions and clear disclosure are necessary -- so you don't feel fooled.

But many paid apps use these same services to increase their income -- you may think by paying for the app or an in-app extension, your data and behavior are not being mined. But they often are, typically without your knowledge. That's extra income for the app maker, as well as the data miners they work with. Or it supports an artficially low price that drew your interest in the first place. If a deal seems too good to be true ...

Google is hardly alone in plying this murky data-mining trade. But it's the largest visible company in that business, so it's an easy, obvious target for distrust -- and user wrath. Many of us have given up on Facebook ever being honest, so we're looking at Google as the next line to hold.

Also, Google was a very optimistic, idealistic company in its youth. It really did want to change the world for the better, and it believed in freeing information for all as a way to empower individuals. It believed its early "do no evil" motto. It really did see Android as a way to democratize smartphones, which until then were the province of the well-to-do who could afford BlackBerrys or iPhones. Yes, making Android freely available also created a large footprint for Google's services, so its moves were hardly selfless -- but they were oriented toward doing greater good while making money, a virtuous business approach.

Google employees still believe that's how their company works: a force for good that harmlessly uses personal data to both help individuals and make money that supports its many activities and innovations.

But as time goes on, the mercantile needs are coloring the do-gooder impulses. Google is a public company, and it has to satisfy shareholders' desire for profits every quarter. That creates a tension between its reputation and its economic reality. By sweeping that tension under the rug, Google only creates a place for distrust to grow. We can all see that the old Google is not the current Google, and the pretense that it is only heightens our suspicions.

It's time for Google to admit what it does and to act consistently on its policies (or withdraw policies it doesn't intend to enforce). That honesty will help stem the loss of trust. People know that companies exist to make money, but they need to know the true relationship they're entering and don't end up feeling misled. We all know the promises that the banks, airlines, insurance companies, cellular providers, and cable companies make aren't real, and they routinely mislead us on pricing and services -- so we don't trust them. Does Google really want to be like those industries?

Trust comes from honesty, and the key to honesty is to be forthright. Google doesn't seem to understand that yet.

This article, "Too big to trust? Google's growing credibility gap," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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