We gave Google a decency score of seven out of twenty – an Indecent rating. They’ve built their massive business on a disregard for consumer privacy, and their exploitation of personal information has now become standard across the internet. Meanwhile, they’ve used their dominance over the web to steamroll thousands of smaller companies, and reaped the rewards for taking over sector after sector of digital business.
Before we break these scores down further, let’s talk about who Google is as a company. That means going over the revenue model that drives their business as well as the corporate ideology that guides their decision-making.
For more information, click here to read the introduction to our Tech Decency Ratings series.
Google’s Business Model
Google is an advertising company. Of the $182.5 billion revenue parent company Alphabet made in 2020, 80.5% derived from advertising.
Most of that (61% of total) came from Google Search advertising. When you search for something on Google, it displays advertisements on the top and sides of your search. These ads are targeted based on the terms you search for as well as on the profile Google keeps on you.
Alongside search advertising, Google also makes money from their ad network (13% of total) and from YouTube advertising (9.3%). Other Google Services, such as Gmail and Google Cloud, comprise another 16% of Alphabet’s revenue.
Less than 1% of Alphabet’s revenue comes from non-Google subsidiaries. For this reason, we will use Google and Alphabet interchangeably in this article. When it comes to revenue, Alphabet is Google – and Google is an advertising company.
Google’s Corporate Ideology
Google’s publicly stated mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It’s a lofty goal – and one the company is serious about. It’s hard to name another company that has served more information to more people than Google.
This mission statement doesn’t mention advertising – though advertising is how they fund this ambition. They acknowledge their business model on a separate page: “Advertising is what makes it possible to offer our products to everyone.” Only through advertisements can Google make products such as Search freely available. Their revenue stream is not in conflict with their mission; it supports it.
Google consistently emphasizes user experience in their work. The first thing on their list of internal values is to “Focus on the user and all else will follow.” But this commitment to users has been used to justify Google’s anti-competitive behavior as they’ve pushed other companies out of search results in favor of Google’s own web properties. If something helps the end user, Google doesn’t care how many independent businesses they steamroll or how many people lose their jobs along the way.
Google’s most famous value is hard to find on about.google. Once upon a time, “Don’t be evil” was Google’s informal motto, one written into their DNA in places such as the their code of conduct:
“Don’t be evil.” Googlers generally apply those words to how we serve our users. But “Don’t be evil” is much more than that. It’s also about doing the right thing more generally – following the law, acting honorably, and treating co-workers with courtesy and respect.
But Google removed this section in 2018, and there are no recent references to “Don’t be evil” in Google’s corporate communications. Number six of Google’s Ten things we know to be true reads “You can make money without doing evil”. But this section serves to justify Google’s advertising model, and does not offer broad guidance to “do the right thing more generally”.
Alongside Google’s values lies an unspoken prerogative: to get bigger and make more money for its shareholders. Google’s mission is in line with this – the more widely available Google makes information, the more personal data they can harvest and the more targeted ads they can serve up. Per their own values, Google can be as evil or as amoral as they want so long as they continue to make the world’s information more accessible and useful.
In the early 2000s, Google pioneered the commodification of personal and behavioral data. As other companies followed suit, they ushered in an era Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff has termed “surveillance capitalism”. And she very clearly identifies Google as the pioneer:
It was Google that first learned how to capture surplus behavioral data and used it to compute prediction products that they could sell to their business customers.
Google does not make it easy to protect your personal data from them. The privacy controls they do offer are incomplete and often deceptive. You can turn off ad personalization on your Android phone, but Google will still track you online and keep a profile on your behavior. You can turn off your location history, but this only disables the location history you have access to – Google still maintains their own record of where you’ve been.
Because Google pioneered the exploitation of personal data and lacks meaningful privacy controls, we rate them a 1/5 on privacy. If you use Google’s products and services, they will collect your personal and behavioral data – and there’s not much you can do about it.
The good news is that Google seems to be fairly responsible with the data they collect. They’ve faced remarkably few breaches over the years – the only major breach happened via Google+ in 2018. In response, Google shut down the service entirely.
Although you can’t keep Google from harvesting your data, your data is at least fairly safe in their hands. Over the years, they have proven better caretakers of personal information than some of their fellow big tech companies.
So why do we only rate Google a 3/5 on Trust? Unfortunately, they have sometimes been dishonest with the public. In front of Congress, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai has deflected on important questions, answering ‘I don’t know’ about topics that Google almost certainly has hard data on. People working in digital marketing – Google’s industry – have learned not to take Google at their word, flagging most of Google’s public statements as false or misleading in a recent survey.
Google has proven a responsible caretaker for their customers’ data. At the same time, they have repeatedly misled businesses, elected leaders, and the public at large. For this reason, we rate them “Fair” 3/5 on Trust.
Google is a monopoly. They drive 94% of search traffic and roughly two thirds of all referral web traffic in the United States. They leverage this monopoly power to muscle other companies out of business as they expand into new industries.
Let’s take Yelp for an example. Once upon a time, Yelp was the most popular website for customer reviews of local businesses. As Google built out Google Maps, they entered into competition with Yelp. In the early 2010s, Google began copying Yelp’s content directly into Google Maps results – without Yelp’s permission.
When Yelp complained, Google offered a choice: Google could remove Yelp’s content from Google Maps, but only if Yelp completely delisted itself from Google. This was never a fair choice. Google is by far the biggest driver of web traffic in the United States – Yelp could not refuse them without crippling their business. That’s monopoly power at work: because Google drives so much web traffic, Yelp had no choice but to let Google use their content.
The story doesn’t end there. As time went on, Google continually pushed Yelp’s pages down the list of search results. At the same time, they put Maps content higher up via “local pack” widgets.
This local pack is one example of a troubling trend. Google increasingly favors its own web properties on search. To do so, they devise search features such as the local pack that elevate Google’s own properties. In some cases, they’ve also rolled out search features that allow users to find what they’re looking for without clicking through to a third-party website at all. Per one study, fewer than half of Google searches now result in a click to a non-Google website.
According to Google, these search features are justifiable because they are convenient and useful to users. And this is true – these search features are helpful. But Rand Fishkin, founder of SparkToro, makes the case that Google generally displaces better products from search results, and then uses their market power to improve their own offering:
There’s nothing inherently wrong with one company displacing another company because they have a better product. What feels unfair and unethical is that in Google’s case, they did not create better content. Instead, they convinced everyone to fight against each other to create free content. Google crawled that content, displayed it on search, and sent traffic to those publishers. That free traffic is Google’s Trojan horse: once they’re in, they begin extracting instant answers and building competing businesses. And then you realize you’ve been hacked.– Rand Fishkin, founder of SparkToro
If you go back to 2008, Yelp has one hundred times the number of reviews and quality of reviews that Google Maps does. And Google Maps starts putting their results on top of search, nudging every small business on Search to get more reviews, and nudging consumers on Android and Chrome to leave reviews. So over the next ten years, Google does catch up to Yelp in review numbers and quality.
And now Google points to Maps and says “Look, we’re just as good or better. So what are you talking about? We’re not unfairly advantaging Google Maps.” And the only way that’s true is if you ignore history.
Perhaps more than any other major tech company, we often don’t even notice Google in our lives. Though we collectively use it billions of times every day, in the 24 years since Google Search launched, we have come to take it for granted.
Google has largely succeeded in its mission: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” They deliver far more information every day than any other organization in existence. And their commitment to user experience is tangible. Across the board, they offer an admittedly very useful suite of products and services.
Google has also been more adept than other tech companies at controlling disinformation, at least when it comes to Google Search. But harmful and misleading videos proliferate on YouTube, where content recommendations create a feedback loop that leads people ever deeper down the rabbit hole of radicalization.
Meanwhile, Google’s dominance over online advertising carries other consequences. As Google has relentlessly grown its own advertising revenues, many independent publishers have starved to death. Local news in particular has suffered; in the 15 years between 2004 and 2019, over 2100 shuttered permanently. Google is not solely to blame for the death of local news. But they have benefitted more than anyone from the unequal distribution of revenues.
Google’s biggest impact might prove to be the exploitation of personal data and the erosion of privacy at corporate hands. Google’s lack of respect for individual privacy has become the new standard across tech. Other companies, large and small, have followed the exploitative economic model that Google pioneered.
Google has done tangible good in the world. But per our judgement, it is outweighed by the harm done in spreading disinformation, driving companies and publishers out of business, and eroding privacy. For these reasons, we rate them two out of five on Impact, a Poor rating.
Final Score: 7/20
Google has had some real, positive impact on the world. It’s hard to think of a company that has done more to facilitate sharing information over the internet. And Google does have some sense of responsibility – more so than some of their rival big tech companies.
But Google’s impressive growth has come with serious downsides. Their massive role in the proliferation of information comes at the expense of other publishers and businesses. Google is a monopoly, and they wield their power over the entire internet. And although Google puts users first in many ways, their business is built on the exploitation of personal data.
So we arrive at Google’s final rating: seven out of twenty, an indecent rating. Google is not evil – like most corporations, Google is amoral. But their phenomenal growth has come at the expense of personal privacy and economic fairness.
How Google Compares to Other Big Tech Companies
Google’s 7/20 puts it in the middle of the pack, relative to the other big tech companies.
When it comes to privacy, they’re one of the worst offenders – though they’re not quite as bad as Facebook, which loots personal data indiscriminately and leaks it irresponsibly.
Unfortunately, Google’s monopolistic tendencies and occasional dishonesties don’t distinguish it from its fellow tech companies. With regards to economic fairness, however, the anti-trust case against Google is clearer than those against Amazon and Apple.
Google has not faced charges of mistreating workers on the scale of Amazon, and they’ve been somewhat more responsible about disinformation than Facebook has been.
For more information, see our Big Tech Decency Ratings hub.
How Should Consumers Handle Google?
Do you trust Google? That’s the real question here. If you use Google’s products or services, Google will harvest your personal and behavioral data indiscriminately. But if you feel like you can trust Google with your information, that might not be a dealbreaker for you.
If you care about Google’s social impact or anti-competitive behavior, the best thing you can do is to write your representatives and find other ways to push for change. It can’t hurt to find alternatives to Google’s services. But the problems posed by Google can only be solved by public or collective action, and not by the consumer decisions of any one individual.