The Google Religion
Apple’s products are lusted after. Microsoft’s clout is respected. Google, remarkably for such a dominant company, is admired. The press commended them for making a tool to help survivors of Japan’s earthquake, but no one was surprised. That sort of thing is seen as perfectly in keeping with the company’s personality. And the company does seem to have a personality, despite its size, one that’s both sleekly efficient and endearingly geeky.
It’s an impressive feat of branding, and Douglas Edwards, author of the new memoir I’m Feeling Lucky, presided over its beginning.
Edwards joined Google in 1999. The company’s previous marketing head had been sent packing after proposing an advertising budget that Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, thought was too high. Brin and Page soon made clear that any advertising budget was too high. In an early meeting with Edward, Page said bluntly that “marketing likes to lie,” and both founders insisted the quality of their product ought to speak for itself. Pop-up ads, coupons, sweepstakes, and other publicity gimmicks, Page said, prey on people’s stupidity. They are evil.
“Don’t be evil” didn’t become the company’s slogan till much later—and only after a sustained guerilla campaign by one employee, who scrawled it on every available surface)—but Edwards says the sentiment pervaded Google from the beginning. Advertising was evil, pay-for-placement Internet search was evil, spam was evil. Any deception or inefficiency that impeded the flow of information was evil. And Google, according to the founders, was a force for good. Not just the hacker’s good of open information, but conventional, altruistic, volunteer-at-your-local-soup-kitchen good. To Edwards’ astonishment, Brin proposed donating the entire advertising budget to inoculate Chechen refugees against cholera.
Edwards depicts Brin and Page’s faith in their company, and in their company’s virtuous mission, as almost religious. He was chastised for saying that though he sometimes disagreed with them, the founders were “almost always right.” Heresy. “When were we ever wrong?” Page replied. The founders’ faith was shared by Google’s employees, who practically lived in the office, adding to the feeling of a religious order—a Silicon Valley monastery with free massages and gourmet lunches.
The early Googleplex sounds like a blast. There were weekly roller-hockey games, 2 a.m. Soul Caliber battles, and impromptu water-gun fights. It was a bastion of dot-com excess that managed to survive into the 21st century. Page and Brin especially sound like they had fun in the early years, in part because Google, at least before it went public, was their personal plaything. Wildly ambitious pet projects abounded. Page started scanning every book in the world, just because he wanted to. After the September 11 attacks, Brin decided to host news on the site because mainstream sites were crumpling under the heavy traffic. Everyone snapped into action, no questions asked, which prompts Edwards to say that Brin and Page saw themselves as modern Edward R. Murrows or Joseph Pulitzers, using Google as their personal press. The founders had ultimate control, but any engineer with a good idea could take a turn at the wheel. That openness made the early Google a chaotically fecund operation.
Much of Edwards’ job consisted of channeling the company’s quirky energy, and many of what seem like the company’s most successful public relations gambits happened only because he failed rein them in. The “Google doodles” on the homepage came into existence because the founders thought it would be fun, and insisted on doing them despite Edwards’ warnings that all of traditional marketing wisdom counsels against tampering with your company’s logo.
Edwards eventually embraced the company’s quirkiness and started writing “Googley” copy. He made chatty error messages and filled FAQs with puns. When Google released a toolbar that tracked users’ browsing habits, he drafted an up-front license agreement to convince users that the company could be trusted. “PLEASE READ THIS CAREFULLY,” Edwards wrote in bold red type. “IT’S NOT THE USUAL YADA YADA.” Still, Edwards spent much of his time trying to control the excesses of the engineering team, whose peculiar public relations ideas had a great deal of traction with the founders. Despite his valiant efforts, Edwards failed to dissuade the company from launching Gmail on April 1 with a press release that was deliberately ambiguous as to whether the whole thing was a joke.
The Gmail press release annoyed reporters, but the real scandal turned out to be over privacy. When Gmail debuted, it had ads tailored to the content of users’ emails. There was an uproar. A California senator threatened to make Gmail illegal. Amazingly, no one at Google, not even Edwards, saw it coming.
Brin and Page were charming when they overruled critics of things like Google Doodle, and their utopian vision was inspiring when they spent company resources on seemingly unrenumerative projects like Google Books, but with the Gmail debacle, their confidence in their own correctness took on a troubling tone. “There is no privacy issue,” said Page, because computers, not people, scan the emails.
It was the first time the founders’ idea of good and evil didn’t match with the public’s. They acknowledged the gap, but thought it was the public’s job to close it and they also seemed to make an exception for themselves. Users should give Google access to their data, they argued, because it will allow Google to make their services, and hence life, better. But Google can’t tell anyone how exactly they’re using their data, because that would allow people to game the system—and competitors to catch up. That this stance coincides with their need to make a profit doesn’t help.
Privacy becomes Google’s most intractable public-relations problem, but that story doesn’t make it into I Feel Lucky. Edwards left Google soon after it went public, so his story is of a scrappy start-up rising to the top of its industry. It’s an exciting story, and it shines light on the inner workings of the fledgling Google and on the personalities of its founders. But it ends before we can find out how the company has tried to balance “Don’t be evil” with the prime imperative of publicly-traded companies: to turn a profit.