Aaron Swartz on What Google Means by ‘Evil’

Aaron Swartz:

If you look at their examples of evil deeds, they seem rather mundane compared to cackling supervillains and mass murderers. They specifically name three: only showing relevant ads, not using pop-ups or other annoying gimmicks, and not selling actual search results.

Hardly the stuff of comic books. But what do these three have in common? They’re all instances of refusing to make things worse for your users in order to make more money. […]

When you stop to think about it, it’s wild how many companies have done just that: Printer manufacturers who put chips on their ink cartridges, so you can’t refill or recycle them but instead have to buy a new full-price cartridge. Apple preventing the Kindle app from having any sort of ebook buying functionality. Web publishers who break articles up into 20 pages so that you have to load 20 different ads just to read one article. These are pretty banal evils, but it’s striking that I can’t think of any example where Google has done anything like that.

Sounds more profound when put this way, but I’d argue that Google’s entire business model should be deemed “evil” by this lofty standard. It is certainly true that the ads Google shows in search results and Gmail are far less annoying than typical web ads, but they’re still ads. Search results are worse with ads than without. How can anyone argue that Gmail is better because it puts ads next to your email? Almost everything is worse with ads than without. The trick is to do it with taste and respect for the reader/viewer/user — to have the ads make the overall experience only ever-so-slightly worse, rather than a lot worse. Google does that, and, really, that’s what I try to do here at DF, too.

So instead of “Don’t make things worse for the user in order to make money”, I’d say a better rule, and one which applies to Google, would be something like “Maintain a high amount of respect for your users’ time, attention, and happiness.” That’s the line you don’t want to cross.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011