Google Monoculture: Defending Jeff Atwood

Jeff Atwood at Coding Horror sent about 3,000 people here over the last couple of days from his post about the dangers of Google Monoculture. The least I can do is defend him against his critics, so here are answers to a few of the most common criticisms in the comments to his post.

I can switch any time I like, so it’s not a problem. Or “The Google monopoly seems a lot less scary than it’s marketshare would suggest because a new search engine is only a click away.”

No you can’t switch any time you like, for two reasons.

First: you can use another search engine, but when everyone else is using Google to find their way around the web, any other search engine that uses popularity as an input (most of them I think) is going to reflect Google’s recommendations. Google shapes the web as much as mapping it, and you can’t escape that shape easily even if you use another search engine.

Second: Google isn’t in the search business, it is in the advertising business. And while Adwords is its big moneyspinner, Doubleclick and Adsense ads are all over the place and you can’t escape them (not easily anyway).

The problem is that Microsoft acted in a belligerent and bullying manner, whereas google has not. An no one feels locked in, because they can switch in an instant.

Can we get past this idea that Microsoft is full of moustache twirling evildoers while Google is populated by friendly helpful people? Face it: companies respond to incentives. Google’s incredible success has saved it the tough decisions of squeezing the most out of every customer (and employee) so far, but when times get tough for Google, as they will sometime, it will squeeze just as hard as Microsoft, because it will have no choice.

Also, we have a different relationship to Google than to Microsoft. Most of us are Microsoft customers, but we are not Google’s customers, we are Google’s product. It sells us to advertisers. Google’s treatment of its advertisers is mysterious, but there are grumbles. For example, see El Reg on Google’s Money Machine; its ability to place ads on search terms that an advertiser did not bid on (and so collect money) and to extend ads to the iPhone (and charge for them) without asking their customers. And Google is quite keen to “embrace and extend” news organizations with Google News, and to use its site-directed top search results to take extra advertising revenue from the sites it directs you to.

Give Google time, then ask their customers if they feel they can switch.

A lot of people compared the Googopoly to the Micropoly. My very smart colleague Graeme commented: “In short, Microsoft’s monopoly was *created*, Google’s was *earned*.”

This is a tough one, but I disagree. In the key areas, both MS and Google made very good products by making the most of increasing returns to scale and from network effects. Many years ago I used Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect, but Office just got better and more integrated. But that’s a subjective opinion and it is asking for trouble. In the end, sure we use Word because everyone else uses Word, but in a way we use Google because everyone else uses Google: like Microsoft they work hard to exploit their relationship to us. Microsoft did it with design consistency and with file format compatibility, Google uses the information we give them every time we search to tweak its products. Both have produced some very good products and some products that win just because of company size. I use Google Docs because the scale of Google’s operation makes it responsive and convenient, but let’s face it, it’s an unpleasant experience compared to other writing and spreadsheet products.

And finally, although I can’t find a comment, there’s this impression that Google is closed open while Microsoft is openclosed. Rubbish! Google gives away stuff that doesn’t matter to it. When it comes to its core technologies – the Adwords and Search algorithms and its data centre construction, Google is as closed and secretive as anyone. It recently refused to give information on water use at one of the new data centres because “We’re in a highly competitive industry and, frankly, one or two little pieces   of information like that in the hands of our competitors can do us   considerable damage. So we can’t discuss it.”

Very friendly.

Bookmark the permalink.


  1. You say at the end “there’s this impression that Google is closed while Microsoft is open”.
    I think you mean the other way around.
    (and now you can find a comment about this….)

  2. Amen.
    If you stop to consider for a moment that not only does Google shape where we shop, what we buy (, what we read, and what we learn, but many of their other initiatives such as storing patient health information and Google Docs, etc. also mean that they are slowly gaining massive control over people’s personal information.
    That said, I use Google Docs, Gmail, and am not necessarily opposed to initiatives that move personal information to the ‘cloud’. But we shouldn’t just be blindly handing Google power over our lives without some knowledge of what it may one day cost us.
    If you ask me, the corporation to be feared both today and a decade from now will be Google. As a entity I can think of none other that wields a comparable amount of power (or ever has in known history for that matter) over such a vast majority of the world’s population. That’s kinda scary in my lowly opinion.
    P.S I think you mixed up ‘there’s this impression that Google is closed while Microsoft is open.’ I think it should be the other way around.

  3. It is an interesting dynamic isn’t it. A Google competitor could come along with an ad matching algorithm that offered advertisers many orders of magnitude more click-throughs at an equivalent cost and a data center that was many orders of magnitude more efficient and it wouldn’t matter unless web surfers changed their habits.
    What are the pain points that a web surfer/searcher feels? Can you think of a compelling reason to switch other than philosophical ones?
    A superior competitor could displace AdSense (ads on 3rd party sites) but AdWords (ads on search results) would be a tough nut to crack.

  4. Microsoft always squeezes, no matter if the times are tough or not. Not that I am defending Google, but in trying to show how they are the same as Microsoft you have shown how they have been different.

  5. …when times get tough for Google, as they will sometime, it will squeeze just as hard as Microsoft, because it will have no choice.
    Like 300baud said above, MS has a pretty rotten history of engaging in illegal anti-competitive behavior, whereas most companies don’t. Google, for instance. Yes, corporations share a lot of common structural features which largely dictate their behavior. But the fact is that a corporation’s culture, and the personalities of its leaders, actually do make a difference. Nobody would attribute Enron’s behavior to every business on the planet; similarly, it’s simplistic to equate Google with Microsoft.
    Also, we have a different relationship to Google than to Microsoft. Most of us are Microsoft customers, but we are not Google’s customers, we are Google’s product. It sells us to advertisers.
    Microsoft also treats its paying “customers” as its product when it locks them into various system and then sells them to the company’s other divisions. That’s the whole basis for criticizing their monopoly position, and the fact that the “products” are also paying customers (unlike Google’s “products”) is an aggravating, not a mitigating, factor.
    I’m no Google cheerleader, but I think your criticism here is a bit weaker than usual for you. You’re overstating the similarities between MS and Google, and it dilutes the core of your case against Google.

  6. Your point about referring to us as “Google’s product” really got me thinking. I was trying to think of all the way’s that we might be Microsoft’s product as well. Matt Norwood’s comment is compelling on this front. I also wonder if/how Microsoft might have used, or might be using, its customer data. Certainly not in the same way as Google, but perhaps in a comparable way? I don’t know.
    Like Matt, I’m not a Google cheerleader either. And, I always wonder about that “Do No Evil” statement and how what is and what might be “evil” changes over time. That being said — and Matt beat me to the point again — not every company reacts the same way to pressure, though all public companies have to face the shareholders when making decisions about whom to squeeze and how hard to squeeze them.
    Thanks for continuing to write about this!

  7. I do like Matt’s point that there is an equivalence between network effects and treating paying customers as product. I’d never thought of it that way. And of course you are all right that companies do differ.
    Let me admit something. The unparalleled level of smugness and self-righteousness that Google demonstrates pisses me off mightily. So I’m biased. On the other hand, like millions of others I compete against Microsoft in my day job so I’m no fan of them either. Sounds like none of us are fans of either of them.
    Food for thought and I have no quick comebacks.

  8. I, too, liked the “we are product” metaphor.
    Doesn’t this just drive home the point that as consumers we need to be demanding that the data about us stays ours. Sure, they can mine the collective data, but if the data is “open” and owned by the individual then any organization can use it and leverage it as they see fit – depending on how one delegates access to it.
    It could potentially redirect the value placed on the data, and redirect it onto the value of a great service, experience, and service – driven by data, but owned and controlled by the individual.

  9. According to the law, it doesn’t matter *how* you become a monopoly, just that you are. You can get they way through creating great products, or through anti-competitive measures. Either way, the government can and will intervene.

  10. Very thoughtful and I believe accurate depiction of the current situation. Well done.

  11. A few years back yahoo kept changing their terms of service to allow them to sell your info to third parties for spaming. After they did that, there would be an uproar, they would switch back, and then try again. After they did that two or three times, I removed all my personal info from my yahoo account, and keep it only for chat, I use gmail for everything else.
    There will always be competitors, if google turns evil, the competitors will prosper.

  12. re google’s openness: If I want to get all of my data out of google I can right now. I can get my mail, my calendar, my google reader subscriptions, I can even get copies in several formats of the 3 documents I have in google docs. This is what people are (or should be) referring to when they say google is more open than microsoft. (try exporting your word documents to odf, hah!)
    On the other hand, one wonders whether if I were to take all these data out and then delete it, would google really delete? Stuff like that is certainly worth thinking about, but when it comes to how open google is, I care about standards support, not google’s search algorithm or the water usage at their data center (though any piece of info you can get is always interesting, of course). I just thought that was a bit missing in the whole ms vs. google thing.

Comments are closed