Ethics aside, incident raises another question: How did Yahoo Search unearth the offending site when Google could not?
Mark Jen this week got a gentle schooling in the dos and don'ts of blogging at Google after posting and then temporarily pulling from the Web some mild criticisms of his new employer.
Called Ninetyninezeros (a reference to the mathematical term known as a "googol"), the blog offers a surprisingly candid insider's look at one of the world's most closely watched and tight-lipped tech companies. In one post, for example, Jen makes a detailed comparison of pay and benefits packages at Google and his former employer Microsoft, concluding that Google falls short.
Jen declined to comment for this story. But on Wednesday, an edited version of his blog reappeared on the site, with a new entry explaining the on-again, off-again commentary. Gone was the first day's post explaining his reasons for creating the blog, as well as a description of an employee orientation event that vaguely touched on discussions of Google's booming business. (A copy of the original posts can be found here.)
"I goofed and put some stuff on my blog that's not supposed to be there," he wrote. "I'm learning that Google is understandably careful about disclosing sensitive information, even vague financial-related things. The quickest way for me to fix the situation at the time was to take it all down. Now I'm back up."
Jen denied he made the change under duress, insisting that Google "was pretty cool about all this."
Employee blogging is on the rise, sparking increasing clashes between workers and management over the line between appropriate and inappropriate commentary. In one recent dispute, a Delta Air Lines flight attendant lost her job because of a blog, after posting photos of herself in uniform on the Net.
At the same time, blogs have been embraced by some top corporate executives as a powerful communication tool. Sun Microsystems President Jonathan Schwartz has made plenty of media hay with his blog, chastising partners and rivals over their business doings. Dot-com billionaire Mark Cuban, meanwhile, now goes straight to his blog with his musings about everything from digital entertainment to basketball.
The employee blog issue is doubly sensitive for Google, which became a prominent booster of blogging through its acquisition of Web logging pioneer Pyra Networks in February 2003. The company also has made a point of putting ethics before profits in its business operations, suggesting it holds itself to a higher standard of care than the average for customers and employees.
Jen began making entries in Ninetyninezeros on Jan. 17, and soon drew the notice of other bloggers. Curiosity spiked when the postings suddenly disappeared for about a day earlier this week. Adding to the mystery, Google's reputedly omnivorous search engine apparently missed adding the site to its database of about 8 billion Web pages—even though it did show up in search results from rival Yahoo and blog aggregation sites such as Bloglines.
Google spokesman Steve Langdon confirmed that Jen is a Google employee who started work at the company on Jan. 17, and that Jen is the author of the blog. He added that Google has blogging guidelines, but he declined to talk about them. Contrary to some speculation, Google did not pull the site from its index, Langdon said.
That means Google's search engine never indexed Ninetyninezeros in the first place. Passing over one week-old blog site may seem inconsequential given the scale of the Web, but the oversight could yet prove more distressing than any debate about the ethics of blogging. Google is facing stiffening competition from rivals Yahoo and Microsoft in the Web and desktop search markets, and some analysts believe the performance gap is already closing.
In short, Yahoo's search engine turned up the Ninetyninezeros blog even after it was yanked offline, while Google's did not. Does that mean Google's grip on search technology is slipping?
Langdon declined to answer the question, saying he needed more time to investigate.