January 31, 2006

A chink (no pun intended) - in Google's armour

One day we may look back at the brand that is Google and point to the PR bluder that China has become. I was reading Andy Kessler's blog today and he had this great post on Google's entry into China:

January 31, 2006

WSJ: Sellout.com

Americans have a long history of selling out - think Warren Beatty and “Ishtar” or politicians and Indian casinos. The public is trusting until proven otherwise, then turns on icons like rats on garbage. Never more so with culture: Being “cool,” “tight” or “wicked excellent” is a hard image to keep and one boneheaded move can send you to tomorrow’s cut-out bin. Ask Michael Jackson. Or Madonna.

Which brings us to Google. As a company, even more so than Ian Schrager’s hotels, it reeks of cool—Google Maps and Google Earth and gmail bring a kind of geek chic to the dull old media world. Plus, there are those lofty ideals like “organizing the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It’s why we all use them. Google should do everything to stay cool. GM is spending millions on ads that say “Just Google Pontiac” to get in on the zeitgeist.

And now, poof.

a billion soon-to-be-online Chinese will forever associate Google with lame and censored search results

One of the ways urbandictionary.com defines “sellout” is to alienate core fans by changing one’s style to appeal to a broader audience—and becoming what one’s fans were rebelling against in the first place. The U.S. government wanted search history to help fight child porn and Google said no way, to cheers from their Big Brother-hating constituency. But for its search service in China, Google caved to the communists, removing offending results for “Human Rights” and “Things that are Democratic.” Tough choice. Founder Sergey Brin is quoted by Fortune as saying, “it will be better for Chinese Web users, because ultimately they would get more information, though not quite all of it.” There will be no staring down tanks in Tiananmen Square.

Will it matter? Trust and cool are in the eye of the beholder. “Piano Man” Billy Joel never recovered from “Uptown Girl.” Rocco DiSpirito may end up as a waiter. Kevin Costner can barely get arrested in Hollywood since “Waterworld.” Heck, Wall Street analysts sold out to bankers, and look what happened to them. Then again, Sinatra, Springsteen and the Grateful Dead all sold out at some point, but kept their reputations.

Look, there’s a wrong way to sell out—rappers pitching for Chrysler, anything Vegas—and a right way. Puff Daddy’s soundtrack for “Godzilla” could have been a disaster to his fans, but he chose to do a hip-hop remix of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” providing someone else to blame for the sellout. Or the Jimi Hendrix strategy. Story has it that, despite using Gibson guitars on his albums, he signed a deal with Fender Guitars for cash and as many Stratocasters as he needed, as long as he appeared exclusively in concert and photos with Fenders. He took the deal, and with his unlimited supply of Fenders, began smashing them at the end of every concert, for fans who never knew he sold out.

Google could have kept their cool and trusted image if they’d just worked with someone else in China, someone they could smash. Perhaps Eggroll.com - powered by Google. Someone else to blame for those unsearchable keywords. Users in the West may not desert them, but a billion soon-to-be-online Chinese will forever associate Google with lame and censored search results - tools of the state. That just dumb. And totally uncool.

Mr. Kessler is the author of “Running Money” (HarperBusiness, 2005).

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