How Google became the George Washington of the Internet

Despite its extremely ambitious agenda and questionable conflicts of interest, Google has maintained public trust with minimal backlash. Here's why.

​George Washington statue -- Boston Public Garden

George Washington statue in Boston Public Garden.

Image: Jason Hiner

After George Washington led the fledgling little U.S. nation to victory in the Revolutionary War, he turned down the opportunity to be crowned king of America. The idea was distasteful to Washington because it went against everything he and his troops had fought for: the promise of a better kind of country based on freedom and democracy.

When England's King George III heard about Washington preparing to turn down the monarchy and return to his Virginia farm, he said, "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."

It was, in fact, Washington's greatest maneuver of all, because of its complete genuineness. It endowed him with an air of incorruptibility. And, because of that, six years later when he was elected the first U.S. President he was able to succeed in uniting all of the fractious elements of the country for one reason - they all trusted him.

The same is true with Google.

I know that sounds like a pretty big cognitive leap, but hear me out on this.

Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin co-authored a paper in 1998 in which they argued that search engines should not be funded by advertising because it would negatively influence search results. Specifically, they wrote, "We expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers."

So, just as the two Stanford PhD candidates were getting Google off the ground, they were arguing in their paper for a "search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm."

However, Google soon became so popular and generated so much traffic that it outgrew the computing resources at Stanford, and Page and Brin were all but forced to spin out Google into a private company and get funding from investors if they wanted to keep the project going.

Google got funded, but the Internet environment of the late 1990s was not very search engine friendly. Search was basically considered to be good enough and not something that was very interesting. Search engines like Yahoo and AltaVista were racing to transform themselves into "portals" that became destinations for users to hang around, and not just search sites where people came, found what they were looking for, and then jumped off to someone else's site.

Like George Washington at the beginning of the American Revolution, Google appeared to be on the wrong side of history and up against powerfully entrenched enemies that it appeared unlikely to defeat.

But, as Google became the anti-portal with better search results and a simple page uncluttered by extra links and graphics-heavy display ads, more and more users began flocking to the site. More user growth meant that Google needed more money from investors, and once investors got on board there was soon a lot more pressure on Page and Brin to find ways for Google to make money.

The easy answer would have been to put banner ads on the Google home page. With all of the traffic that Google generated, these ads would immediately translate into millions of dollars of revenue per month. However, Brin and Page refused to do it, even though it would have made them both very wealthy.

They viewed ad-cluttered pages as something that was turning the Internet into a place much more friendly to businesses than to users. To them, it was a sign of everything that was wrong with the Internet and it was completely antithetical to the kind of Internet they wanted to create. Is this starting to sound familiar yet?

The Google monetization dilemma soon developed into a public issue. Users loved Google and didn't want to see it go away, but many of them also understood that Google was a business and that it had to find ways to make money or else it would disappear. Many users became resigned to the fact that the Google home page would eventually have banner ads on it.

But, Page and Brin found a compromise. They agreed to put ads on Google, but only text-based ads, and only ones that were relevant based on matching topics and keywords from searches. If there were no topically relevant ads, then no ads at all would show up on the searches.

In the end, this system (AdWords) turned out to be far more lucrative than banner ads. But, more importantly, the refusal by Page and Brin to sell out by putting display ads on Google endeared them to the public and gave them an aura of incorruptibility.

This perception has been bolstered by Google's famous "don't be evil" mantra that Page and Brin have made the cornerstone of Google's corporate culture. As a result, Google has become one of the most trusted brands in the world, and that trust from users has become a critical reserve as Google has expanded far beyond search and created the largest repository of personal data in human history.

Despite its initial commitment to transparency and recent baby steps like Google Dashboard, Google has never told us how it secures all of this precious data from hackers, or how it protects Google employees from unauthorized snooping in the data, or what it's policies are for revealing parts of that data to government investigations and court cases. Instead, Google has basically stated that it takes user privacy very seriously and that it has strict controls in place to protect the data. In others words, it's just said, "Trust me." So far, users and governments have gone along for the ride, but how long will the ride last?