Yet Another Encounter With Google's Dark Side

Like Microsoft, I have long regarded Google as a necessary evil.  An encounter with Google yesterday has reinforced my belief that they're "evil" - despite their famous slogan to the contrary.  (Methinks the Google lady doth protest too much...)  I now question, though, exactly how "necessary" Google is.

You've probably heard the rumor by now that "absolute power corrupts absolutely".  It follows, therefore, that a highly powerful entity like Google can't help but become at least a little evil.  Like death, taxes, and getting electrocuted when you fly a kite in a thunderstorm, it's inevitable.

My early encounters with Google were very pleasant.  In fact, I remember chiming on the comp.dsp newsgroup many years ago about how great a new search engine called "Google" was because it provided the first full-text search of the Internet.  At the time, all the other search engines indexed only bits and pieces of web sites; you regularly would search for something, get no search hits, then subsequently run into the exact search text that the search engines couldn't find in a page they did find. So, for webmasters like me at that time, it was critical to design your pages to be found by myopic search engines by placing keywords in critical spots - sometimes at a small loss in their usability.  In particular, the first paragraph of each page, which was the only part that might actually get indexed, had to be carefully loaded with keywords.

With Google, all that changed.  But that happened more than a decade ago.  Since then, all of the (remaining) search services have become full-text.  And they've gotten much better.  Microsoft has invested zillions in Bing.  Assuming Microsoft is still losing money on it, I think we should encourage them to continue.  So it's time to rethink the idea that Google is really "necessary".

But what exactly is so "evil" about Google?  I first encountered the Dark Side of Google about six or seven years ago.  I was interested in automating a little word game I was playing at the time, and I noticed that although the Internet had plenty of word lists, it didn't have any comprehensive list of word frequencies.  Word frequency was critical to what I was doing because the game involved the joint probability of two words appearing on the same page.  So, I wrote a little Python script to query Google for the number of page hits for each word in a large list I found somewhere.  It seemed to me that the number of page hits would be a reasonable proxy for the word frequency.  It soon seemed to be producing good results.  The word list I had was so large that I decided to let the thing run overnight.  Seemed like a good idea at the time but when I got up the next morning, I found out that Google had shut me off.

Although I knew that Google wasn't making any money on my automated queries, I didn't really think I was doing anything wrong.  I just figured that my little queries were a drop in the bucket of their giant ocean of servers.  That's actually true if it was just me, but it turns out that part of The Great Google Machine is programmed to hunt down and kill IP addresses that make too many queries.  As a group, I guess such things matter. I qualified for the kill.

After being shut off, whenever I tried to use Google in a browser, I got a page that said something like "You've been a bad boy so we've shut you off. But you can write to us at the address below and we might - just might - restore your service."  (Sorry but I forget the exact text.)  I did so immediately, and groveled to The Great and Powerful Google, the way Dorothy and company groveled to The Great and Powerful Oz.  With similar results.

I don't consider the fact that Google shut me off to be evil - that's just business.  But it was the way they dealt with me that was evil.  It was actually kindda humiliating.  I groveled to them several times to the effect of "I'm sorry and it won't happen again", but I was ignored.  Finally, I received a note that said something like, "We're just trying to feed our children and you're starving us."  (No kidding!)

With the image in my mind of an emaciated, petulant, pimply, soon-to-be-millionaire new-grad whining about starving, I gave up on the idea of ever Googling again and began to pursue alternatives.  I found something called alltheweb, which was the only other full-text search engine that I could find at the time.  It generally worked well, but somehow it seemed to lack that extra something that Google had.  But I resigned myself to settling for it.

My wife, though, wasn't ready to give up the addiction to Google.  So she wrote to them something to the effect of, "Why should I be shut off just because my husband is a crumb?"  Evidently that was the supplication that the pimply Google Gods were looking for, because our service was restored shortly thereafter.  So I began to use Google again.  And as is usually the case when The Gods deign to show a little mercy, I was even momentarily grateful.

I was therefore amused a couple of years later to see their stock hit $200 per share shortly after their IPO - I wouldn't mind starving a little like that myself.

I never forgot my encounter with Google's inevitable Dark Side, but a year or two ago, I began to use Google Analytics to track my web traffic.  People who aren't webmasters probably have never heard of Google Analytics, but it's one of the key elements of Google's Dark Force.  Basically, webmasters get lots of slick, free reports about their web traffic in return for putting a little Javascript in each page that tells Google each time somebody loads it.  (It's staggering to think of the traffic this must generate - and they're worried about my little word-frequency script running overnight...)  This allows Google to correlate their search results with the page the user actually clicked on after the search.  If used correctly, that information should allow Google to tune their search results via feedback from users that the users themselves don't even know they're giving.  ("Come over to the Dark Side, Luke.")  And it has become a monopoly that other search providers simply can't break into.

I even eventually adopted Google's "Chrome" as my primary browser, dropping the very competent Firefox in the process.  Chrome had gotten faster and just seemed to work a little better in some indefinable way.  In fact, I was using Chrome in the last few days when I finally had another encounter with Google's carefully hidden Dark Side.

I recently received a coupon in the mail for a $100 credit towards Google's "AdWords" program, which is the printing press in The Great Google Money Machine.  It's been unclear to me whether AdWords would be cost-effective for my little business, but if they were letting me try it for free, heck, it seemed like it was worth giving it a try.  So I did.  The sign-up process wasn't exactly the "three easy steps" sort of thing that the flyer I had received indicated.  For one, Google required me to provide a credit card in order to obtain my "free" credit.  (Sounds a lot like phishing, don't it?...)  My credit card works fine normally, but Google kept giving me a nebulous error message.  Of course, this might be incompetent more than evil.  But after it finally somehow went through, I found out that Google had made three $1 test charges to my credit card.  So they've already alleviated their starvation by extracting $3 from my tiny little wallet.

I could live with that, but what really got under my skin was the fact that when I tried to make a harmless little ad for dspGuru, I received a cryptic message that said it had been disapproved.  So I tried again, with the same result.  After investigating a little, I found out that they think that dspGuru somehow violates their "site" policy.  I could find no detailed explanation, just the policy itself.  dspGuru doesn't seem to fit the policy but there seemed to be no course of appeal.  Evil is nothing if not arbitrary.

Now folks, this little website has been on the air for over ten years, helping people worldwide learn the difficult subject of Digital Signal Processing.  There's nothing sinister going on here.  We don't shut off anybody's service, and we don't charge anybody's credit card for anything.  The worst thing that we do is show you a little advertising and try to sell you a book or two on Amazon.  Our expenses are low, but so is our revenue (this just in: DSP is a very low-volume niche subject), so dspGuru is mostly a break-even operation.  We're not starving like the poor folks at Google, but nobody's getting rich here either.

So, when The Great and Powerful Google refuses to advertise our little operation, I can't help but look on it as evil.  As Forrest Gump might say, "Evil is as evil does".  Google's phishing through our tiny pocketbook and their refusal to advertise dspGuru stinks of the big guy squashing the small guy.  But unlike Dorothy, I'm tired of being a pawn of the Great and Powerful Oz.  So I've decided to protest in my own small way.  I disabled Google Analytics in dspGuru.  I downloaded Firefox yesterday and (with a little trouble) switched its default search engine to Microsoft's Bing.  In fact, I'm using Firefox, instead of Chrome, at this very moment.

Pay no attention to that Dark search engine behind the curtain.

The Dark Side

I loved this blog, Great site I also joined so I could say your blog made me laugh too. A rarer event in these these straightened times.
I am very interested in the sound modeling aspects of DSP this site has been invaluable.
Happy surfing away from the rocks of the corporate machine.

Evil Google

Your story about evil Google is too funny! I use Bing because Google needs the competition. I laughed while reading your story and it was one of the reasons I joined your website. I'm also interested in DSP.

And now its evilness became more tangible with your testimony

It's harsh to realise how thing happen underneath, and google seems to be that kind of constantly-growing machinery of evil, as if it is already so. I'm also trying to get apart from it just for paranoic and now based thought. I recommend you to use DuckDuckGo or Blekko for searching engines because of its privacy or optimal features in search results respectively. Let's the resistance begin!