If we may indulge in some amateur psychology, it’s conceivable that the characteristics of enterprises, just like those of people, become fixed in their childhood. If one enterprise is more unscrupulous or aggressive than another, perhaps the difference lies in the way they were founded and in their early years.
Looking at the two Internet giants Google and Facebook in this way makes one understand the results of the "Globes" brands ranking, in which Google was rated the most trustworthy and respected brand in Israel in 2022, while Facebook did not even make the top 100.
Google and Facebook, which carve up the Internet, and, even more so, the online advertising market between them, are actually two companies with similar histories. Both started out on the campuses of elite US universities: Google began as a research project of Larry Page and Sergey Brin on search when the pair were doctoral students at Stanford University in California, and Facebook was founded by Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard University in Cambridge Massachusetts. In both cases, the founders abandoned their studies before completing their degrees in order to promote their startups, which would become giant companies.
That, however, is where the similarity ends. Even at the outset, significant differences were observable in the cultural and organizational DNA of the two companies. Prashant Fuloria, CEO of fintech startup Fundbox, worked at both Facebook and Google in their early days. In an interview with "Globes" last year, Fuloria cast light on these differences.
Fuloria explained that Google rose to greatness thanks to superior search technology, and without having to cope with substantial competitors, at least not in the Western world. Facebook’s history, on the other hand, was tougher, and it had to brush rivals aside in order to become and remain number one. Among these rivals was Google itself.
Destruction versus justice
In its first years, Google didn’t really rate newcomer Facebook. But when the new player in Silicon Valley started to steal more and more workers from it, Google decided to take action. In July 2011, Google launched a direct competitor to Facebook in the form of social network Google+, and threw its entire weight behind it.
At Facebook, which at the time has fewer than one billion users, the launch of Google+ was perceived as no less than an existential threat. After Google’s announcement of the platform’s launch, Zuckerberg convened all Facebook’s employees for a speech that he concluded with the sentence associated with Roman senator Cato the Elder: Carthage must be destroyed. The sentence was displayed on signs throughout the Facebook campus. Facebook went onto a war footing. Its employees took apart every component of Google+ to find out how to beat it.
It worked, and although Google made efforts to promote the social network, it never took off, and was eventually shut down. "Because Facebook had had its ups and downs from the start, from the point of view of monetization and user recruitment, the result is that Facebook is a very paranoid company, constantly in fear of competitors and of what might suddenly turn up around the corner. It’s also more frenetic than Google, and responds more quickly to changes," Fuloria says.
While Zuckerberg spoke of destruction, a diametrically opposite motto developed at Google: Don’t be evil. Company legend has it that the person who came up with the motto in the early 1990s was employee number seven at the company, an engineer called Amit Patel. It was just before one of the first deals that Google signed, and Patel, who feared that Google would agree to introduce bias into its algorithm in order to close the deal, stole into the meeting room and wrote in small letters in the corner of the whiteboard the words "don’t be evil", which eventually became the opening line of Google’s ethical code. Teflon Google
But as the years passed and Google turned from a small search company into a multi-armed octopus with tentacles in everything, the idealistic, naive slogan was weaponized against it, by both outside critics and company employees. And, as the power and influence of the two companies grew, public and regulatory criticism of them increased.
The criticism of Google includes issues such as tax avoidance, abusing its power as a search engine monopoly to eliminate competitors in other sectors, and violation of intellectual property rights. Criticism of Facebook focuses on, among other things, harmful psychological effects of its products, the popularity of fake news and hate speech on the social network (which has sometimes ended in devastating results such as a massacre in Myanmar), and the enormous amount of data it keeps on users. A common criticism of Google and Facebook is that they cooperate in manipulating online advertising rates.
How has it happened that this criticism has affected Facebook negatively while Google has remained relatively unscathed? This is not only in Israel: the results of the "Globes" brands ranking - which had Google top while Facebook was down at the bottom - are in line with the results of similar surveys from around the world. For example, the 2022 report by research company Morning Consult also found Google among the most trusted global brands, alongside Toyota, PayPal, WhatsApp, and Samsung. According to Morning Consult, social networks like Facebook have the lowest level of public confidence, with only 38% of respondents expressing trust in them, compared with 43% who expressed trust in media organizations, 63% who expressed trust in finance companies, and 72% in food and beverage companies.
A similar result was obtained by global public relations and marketing consulting company Edelman in its annual trust and credibility survey, the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer. Not only did social networks, of which Facebook is the most popular, receive the lowest score, they were also the only ones whose scores declined in comparison with the previous year. Only 44% of those surveyed stated that they trusted social networks, a 2% decrease from last year. By contrast, 74% expressed trust in technology companies, a category under which Google can be listed.
By the way, not all ratings are favorable to Google. In 2020, Slate magazine compiled the Evil List, a ranking of the 30 companies doing the most harm in the world. Google (Alphabet) ranked third, as the experts pointed out its willingness for years to censor search results in China in line with that government's requirements, and a project in which it assisted the US Pentagon in analyzing information from drones, a project that was canceled only under internal pressure from workers.
"[Google] knows more about us than Facebook, and it’s moving into more and more areas we depend on, like public health and urban planning, areas where it will always be incentivized to bring its chief business model to bear: selling our habits to advertisers," Slate stated.
Facebook ranked one place higher in the Evil List, thanks to the Cambridge Analytica affair, in which information about Facebook users was streamed to an external company that worked for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, and the Russian troll farm affair - claimed to have possibly influenced the outcome of the 2016 US elections. Incidentally, first place on the Evil List, above Google and Facebook, went to Amazon.
All eyes on Zuckerberg
Dr. Yuval Dror, a sociologist of technology and presenter of the "Making Technology" podcast, is surprised by Google's first place in the "Globes" brands ranking. "Google is a company with a tendency to eliminate its competitors, and an algorithm that encourages extremism on YouTube. It behaves in a very predatory manner, plays dirty, and has been fined billions for that," says Dror. "Its ranking in first place mainly shows how difficult it is to change a perception. We should keep in mind that Facebook is already in the sixth year of its image crisis, and Google hasn’t had scandals on the same scale as Facebook, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a problematic company."
Dror is not really surprised by Facebook’s very low ranking. "Facebook's public image is getting close to that of the cigarette companies, and I’m even surprised there were other companies ranked after it," he laughs. "If I had to make a list of the companies that have caused the greatest harm to humanity, then Facebook would probably be in first place and Amazon would be next. Only after that, maybe, would be Google."
One difference that plays in Google's favor, Dror says, is that it has yet to produce whistleblowers like former Facebook employee Frances Haugen. "Haugen came forward with a large pile of documents from Facebook that showed that the social network knew all along about the problems its products cause, from body image issues, through biasing elections to encouraging genocide, but it did not act to address them. This is something that has not yet happened at Google".
There is another difference between Facebook and Google: the person who heads the company. At Google, it is Sundar Pichai, a hired manager who replaced the unpopular and, some would say, anti-social founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page. At Facebook, there is still founder Mark Zuckerberg; even when he apologizes for mistakes and promises to improve, it is not entirely well received.
"Pichai is a pleasant and serious person, a quiet and respected professional who is seen as a technocratic CEO in the best sense of the word," says Dror. "On the other hand, I think Zuckerberg is seen as a sly type, a manipulative person who uses people, and avoids responsibility. He knows how to apologize, but doesn't really take responsibility, which is not perceived as being credible. This is a young man who founded a company that got out of control, but because of Facebook’s corporate structure, it’s basically impossible to oust him."
The big mistake: privacy policies
Dr. Nirit Weiss-Blatt remembers the days gone by when even Facebook was an extremely popular company. Early in the previous decade, she wrote her doctoral thesis at the University of Haifa on the role of tech bloggers in the flow of information. Those were optimistic times, when the Arab Spring gained momentum with the support of the young social network, Facebook. "In those days, the technology media covered almost only positive stories about IPOs, launches, and products. There was no critical tech media," explains Weiss-Blatt.
A few years later, Weiss-Blatt, an expert in technology journalism and technology public relations, continued her post-doctoral studies in technology media research at the University of Southern California. It was already after the 2016 US presidential race and the election of Donald Trump, and she discovered that everything had changed. "Suddenly all the technological coverage revolved around scandals, from Russian meddling in the elections to dealing with sexual harassment of employees, and fake news." From discussions with journalists in the field, Weiss-Blatt formed the impression that the shift in was also due to "the difficulty reporters had in admitting that half the Americans voted for Trump, and instead of looking at the economic and social issues that led to it, they started looking at scandals related to fake news on the Internet".
Weiss-Blatt believes that things have gone too far: "Today, opposing Facebook makes you a hero. There has been a radical shift from a positive view that cast Steve Jobs as Jesus and the tech companies as global saviors, to an attitude that everything on Facebook is disinformation and Mark Zuckerberg should go to jail. The danger of extremism is that it makes technology company executives cover their ears and not listen anymore. Today, you see that they don't even ask for forgiveness anymore."
From Weiss-Blatt's perspective, it is easy to understand why Facebook, which is seen as directly responsible for Trump’s election, is perceived as more evil than Google, which bears a lesser responsibility for the matter. "In Israel, in general, we are the startup nation and we still see technology as a wonderful thing. In the US, Google is criticized a great deal for things such as cooperation with the military and the government. In Israel, that’s normal because all of our high-tech is an offshoot of the army and Unit 8-200," she says.
Do you think the technology companies were also wrong in the way they managed their PR?
"One of the biggest mistakes was their insistence on being the world’s most secretive establishment. Tim Cook, for example, once boasted that Apple had more secrecy than the CIA . Now, a transparency movement is emerging that is calling on tech companies to provide more data and numbers, and maybe the companies themselves are realizing that secrecy doesn’t always help them."
Whatever the reason, it seems that after years during which Facebook was criticized but continued to grow and grow, over the past year the negative image has begun to hurt its numbers as well. For the first time since it was founded, in the fourth quarter of 2021, Facebook recorded a decrease in the number of daily users, losing about half a million users in three months, a severe blow to a company that is known to be obsessed with growth. In reaction, Facebook (Meta) stock has lost over 50% of its value since the beginning of the year. Google’s (Alphabet) stock price has fared far better, with only a 25% decrease since the beginning of the year.
Is Google dying?
As if all the problems of the technology giants recently were not enough, Google now has a new issue before it: a growing group of Twitter and Reddit users who claim the search results generated by the company's engine are no longer as reliable as they once were and - worse still - are irrelevant, full of advertisements and promoted content.
"Look for the hashtag #googleisdying," stated an article in The Atlantic magazine last month, where reporter Charlie Warzel wrote about trying to search Google for what to do when his shower drain overflowed because of a septic tank emergency - a real crisis happening in his home at that moment - and received unhelpful results: "a slew of cookie-cutter websites… choked with enough repetitive buzzwords as to be barely readable. " In the end, he wrote, "Virtually everything I found was unhelpful, so we did the old-fashioned thing and called a professional."
Google's famous algorithm has undergone countless changes, and today is based on artificial intelligence and machine learning. Advertisement presentation is another area where the company is becoming more sophisticated. Over the years, the company has changed the way ads are presented: their color, size, position on the page. Today, they appear at the top of the page, and in the middle as paid-product carousels, map widgets, and a host of other tools. The blurring of boundaries between ads and content is constantly increasing.
"Users with critical thinking notice these things, but the average web-surfer doesn't notice," says Prof. Yair Amichai-Hamberger, head of the Research Center for Internet Psychology (CIP) at Reichman University (IDC Herzliya). "Most users live in a slight haze and have lost their ability to be selective."
Dr. Tal Mimran , head of the "Social Contract in the Digital Age" program at Tachlith - The Institute for Israeli Policy, agrees that the presence of advertisements has greatly increased. He even maintains it is clear today that the first page of search results consists entirely of sponsored ads. "The public is beginning to develop a lack of trust in those who manage the information. We first noted resentment at the institutional media, academia - now it's the turn of the big technology companies."
Is Google really on the decline? Not exactly. If in 2009 the volume of search via Google represented 90% of all Internet searches, then in 2022, that number is almost 92%, leaving no room for the competition. In Israel, by the way, this figure is close to 98%. So, why the disappointing financial results and why the escalation in advertisements? There are several theories, from increased competition from Facebook (Meta) and Amazon for advertising space, to a change in the way cookies are tracked.
"We won't give you what you're looking for. We know what you're looking for and we'll get it for you through our knowledge of you," Dr. Gal Yavetz from the Department of Information Science at Bar Ilan University explains, in his opinion, Google's mode of operation.
Bottom line, Google has created a sort of prison of services adapted to every daily place and time, from YouTube to Gmail to Google Maps, Drive, Photos and even Waze - and they are too big to be toppled or for users to discard. Our personal information streams to Google via all of these tools, and things are too convenient for that to bother us.
Google stated in response: "The number of ads displayed has been limited for years and we have not changed this. On average, over the last four years, 80% of search results did not include any ads. In addition, during the last seven years, we have reduced irrelevant search results by half."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on July 26, 2022.
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