Too big to trust? Google's growing credibility gap

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

Remember when we all loved Google? Its search engine was both simple to use and an unbiased portal to anything you wanted to know. It was founded by two college students at a time when Silicon Valley was a shining beacon of what was right in the world, during sunny economic and political times.

We don't love Google so much any more, mainly because we trust it less and less. More and more people have realized that the Google search engine is hugely biased in favor of advertisers, and the results are increasingly manipulated by Google for inscrutable purposes. Google seems to track anything and everything we do -- it peruses our emails, our files stored on its servers, our locations, and our chats. Americans are getting nervous.

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When Google bought smart thermostat maker Nest earlier this year, the public recoiled -- Nest owners didn't want their thermometers to be the latest spying portal in their homes for Google to use. That negative reaction drove home the growing Google trust problem. Likewise, no one really believed that Google wasn't participating in the NSA's spying on users; it seemed a clear case of the lady doth protest too much. Plus, we saw how much Google is spying on us, whether or not in support of the NSA. If anything, Google's response seemed to be indignation that the NSA was piggybacking on Google's own privacy-mining efforts.

For most people, Google is still a shining star. It ranks as the second-most valuable brand in the world, after Apple and before Coca-Cola, a ranking that has grown in recent years. It's also at the top of the rankings for best places to work. It's not as if Google has yet become Facebook, whose abuse of personal information is assumed. But the cracks in Google's reputation are growing.

Consider Google's recent policy update for the Google Play Store, which is where you get Android and Chrome OS apps. The latest policies forbid apps that mislead users into buying add-ins, releasing their personal data, or going to websites -- common techniques for dubious advertisers and vendors, as well as cyber criminals.

But will Google enforce these policies? Google didn't respond to InfoWorld's query on the matter, but its past actions suggest it will not, other than occasionally as a sort of spring cleaning. Google has long had a hands-off approach to apps, doing little to weed out malware and other abusive apps. It trusted app makers to do the right thing.

Ironically, Google's own search engine would fail some of those new Play Store policies -- you can't always tell what search-result links you click are sponsored versus neutral, and many of the advertised links lead to scam sites that surreptitiously steal user information. Google also plays games with the unsponsored search results, favoring content from people and organizations with active Google+ accounts, for example. Google Search and the Play Store are becoming more and more like Craigslist, the pioneering, once-virtuous online classified-ads system that now is a seedy venue favored by scammers for finding new victims.

The reality is that Google's business is and has always been about mining as much data as possible to be able to present information to users. After all, it can't display what it doesn't know. Google Search has always been an ad-supported service, so it needs a way to sell those users to advertisers -- that's how the industry works. Its Google Now voice-based service is simply a form of Google Search, so it too serves advertisers' needs.

In the digital world, advertisers want to know more than the 100,000 people who might be interested in buying a new car. They now want to know who those people are, so they can reach out to them with custom messages that are more likely to be effective. They may not know you personally, but they know your digital persona -- basically, you. Google needs to know about you to satisfy its advertisers' demands.

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