A sentence which I have a hard time believing that I’m writing: for the last month or so, the default search engine on my two home computers has been set to Bing. Not because Microsoft has done such a wonderful job (though I’m more impressed with that company than I was five years ago), or even because Google is focusing on areas that I’m not as interested in (though that’s definitely the case, I’ve been a lot more interested in what Apple has done over the last five years than Google), but in how actively distasteful I’m finding Google’s recent actions. In a surprisingly short time, Google has switched from a company that I basically liked and respected (and that I was happy to have located a mile and a half away from my house!) to just another large company that’s lumbering along in a ham-handed fashion, doing some good stuff but also making a fair number of missteps and misusing their market power along the way. And it feels to me like they’ve reached some sort of tipping point in that regard; see, for example, this post by Nelson Minar (an early Google employee), or this post by Raganwald.
Google has, of course, claimed to follow “Don’t Be Evil” as a slogan since its early days. They’re a corporation, and these days a big one, so it’s hard to take that too seriously; but I believe that slogan and that mindset made a difference at Google for many years. Which is good, because Google is a very powerful corporation, a corporation that makes money off of advertising, and a corporation that has its tendrils into many aspects my online life. So they can gather a lot of information about me, and they can mislead me to their own ends. This is always a balancing act (and these days I’m more and more suspicious of free online models: I want to be the customer, I don’t want to be the product that companies are selling to advertisers), but on the whole they seemed to be doing a good job of living up to their early heritage of putting users and correct information first in their search results. And it’s not like they’ve acted at no potential cost to their profits: I generally applaud how they behaved in China, for example.
But the nym wars started raising my eyebrows: Google banned users from Google Plus who registered under names that didn’t seem likely to be those users’ legal names. I’ve never seen an justification of this in terms of benefit to users that’s at all plausible; and that lack of justification left as my default assumption that Google was doing this to make it easier to build dossiers on users for advertising purposes. Google was apparently quite aware of these concerns internally: from what I’ve heard, it was a big source of arguments in internal meetings, with the head of Google Plus ultimately pulling rank and saying “my way or the highway”. I’m all for a unified strategy, but as a user I’d prefer that the unified strategy not be designed to screw me; and the horror stories I’d heard about the appeals process emphasized that Google is a very powerful company with no external accountability.
And those stories continued. On the lack of external accountability: I’ve seen multiple accounts (here’s an example) of people whom Google refuses to pay advertising revenues to, whether on YouTube or through AdSense, with no meaningful possibility for appeal. Then there was the Chrome team breaking their own rules for sponsored links; to Google’s considerable credit, they applied the standard penalty to their own internal team, but that’s not a sign of a unified corporate ethos. And then the Google Kenya mess; again, Google’s main office squashed this, but what on earth were they thinking?
But: if not Google, who? For example, which search engine to use? Safari has a dropdown menu that lets you choose between Google, Yahoo, and Bing, so I figured I should give Bing a try. And, for the first week or so, actually, I thought that Bing was kind of nice: in fact, the results looked to me like Google’s results looked before the Google+ crap showed up, albeit presented slightly less attractively. But since then I’ve soured on Bing: Google+ aside, Google really does still generally give higher quality search results. And Bing’s aesthetics have started to grate.
I thought I’d try DuckDuckGo, but here I ran into an unexpected stumbling block: you can’t add new search engines to Safari, not even through extensions. (There are extensions that try, but it doesn’t feel the same.) Fine, I thought, I’m not thrilled with the growing Safari/Webkit monoculture, so maybe I should go back to Firefox? (Plus, ever since Moxie Marlinspike’s Def Con talk, I’d been thinking I should give Convergence a try.) But it turns out that I like Safari more than I realized: I like the way it lets me leave off www./.com in website names in the address bar, and I really like ClickToFlash/ClickToPlugin, in particular its defaulting to HTML video instead of having you click to get a Flash video player.
And that’s just search; I also depend on Google for mail and for storing my RSS feeds. Which makes me nervous, especially the former: I no longer trust Google to behave at all decently when it comes to my mail. (Which doesn’t mean that I don’t want them to look at my mail at all: I just don’t want them to look at my mail for anything other than spam/virus filtering.) Coming back to wanting to be a customer instead of the product to be sold: in both of those cases, I’d feel happier if I were paying money instead of getting the service for free. But, in both cases, I don’t want to change away lightly: Google’s spam filtering is quite good, and Reeder doesn’t know how to talk to non-Google RSS backends. Maybe there’s another equally good mail provider that I could switch to, I just haven’t done my research; and maybe enough other people are annoyed at Google that Reeder will provide other options soon. (Heck, if I were Reeder’s author, I’d be thinking very hard about providing that functionality myself.)
So, for now, I’m mostly sticking with Google: even for search, my work computer and iOS browsers still use Google, and I’m unhappy enough with Bing that I might well switch my home computers back. But I’m also ready to make a break if somebody points me in the right direction. And I get the feeling that enough other people feel the same way that I suspect that, a couple of years from now, a set of consensus good alternatives will have emerged, and that a noticeable chunk of people whose blogs I read or whom I follow on Twitter will have stopped using Google’s services.
This post has not been revised since publication.