Google’s image: greatest asset and greatest threat!

Ever since the Google FTTH announcement a couple of weeks ago, the internet (and indeed the real world, for a change) has been abuzz with rumours, analysis, speculation and downright madness in some instances. In the meantime, I have written and published my own analysis of the announcement, accessible to Yankee Group customers under the title Google's FTTH Experiment Could Profoundly Reshape US Wireline Landscape.

This has led me to also take a deeper look at how bloggers, newspapers and tweeters have dealt with this piece of news and I was surprised and – to a certain extent – dismayed as well to see how polarizing Google's image is. I guess it's not surprising that a company so successful should generate such strong passions for or against it but I guess I never realised quite how profound the adulation or the hatred could be.

Here are a few of the arguments, rants, points, or just wild guesses that I've come accross in the last few weeks on this topic:

  • Google's FTTH experiment will mean nothing because they will pick a place where it's easy, and that's not the situation in most of the US.
  • Google is after broadband stimulus money.
  • Google will purchase on the cheap from Chinese vendors and the pressure on US Telcos as a consequence will push them in the arms of these self-same Chinese vendors, which will in turn kill the US vendors.
  • In order for Google to choose your town you just have to change your town name (and that, IMO has got to be the stupidest thing I've seen politicians do in a looooooong time…)
  • Google will dissapoint so many towns by not picking them that they'll end up with a PR nightmare on their hands.
  • Google's plan is a conspiracy to kill incumbents by dictating policy goals of Gb/s bandwidth to local server farms that will be (or already are) owned by Google. 

Now some of these might be reasonable assumptions, others verge on crackpot theories. What I find interesting is that I saw very little commentary focus on what was actually in the announcement which, until proven otherwise, is still the most likely course of action for Google.

But perhaps more importantly, this exercice of scanning what is being said on this made me realise that Google has a PR problem on their hands. While there is still a lot of goodwill towards the brand out there, it seems to me that there's also the seeds of a Microsoft syndrom. An increasing number of people think (and say) that Google is after nothing else than world domination and the Orwellian state. Once that starts, it only takes so long for people to start repeating it.

One thing I heard in nearly every discussion, for example, is that Google as your ISP is a really bad idea, they would know everything about your online self. That's actually sensible, which is why Google clearly stated they had no intention of being the ISP. Strangely enough, many people seemed to disregard that particular aspect of the announcement…

What this really highlights to me is that Google has some serious PR work to do. There's been a history of disregard for people's concern around personal information, and while Google has (I think) been relatively careful in the way it's been using that data so far (whereas the late Phorm hadn't) the fact that Google has or could have access to usage data is enough to make a lot of people freak out.

I wouldn't want to be in that place, and it certainly suggests to me that if their FTTH Experiment is to be successful, radical transparency might be necessary. But is that something Google can operate with ?