Google’s Media Masterpiece with a Changing Canvas

27 02 2010

We all are familiar with the term. If you are reading this, I would be willing to bet money that you know what Google is or at least have heard the name before. Having just finished reading a very engaging and insightful book by Ken Auletta, titled Googled The End of the World as We Know It, I now see the most powerful search engine in a new light.

I will not even attempt to summarize the entire scope of the book here. Please note however that it is an interesting read that is worth your time. That being said, there are several key factors which surface throughout the book that are worthy of exploration.

First, is the issue of privacy. Google serves a nearly unbridled desire – or is it need? – for people to access information. In turn, Google has built its business prominence upon this most basic premise, providing access to almost limitless information through the Internet. As more information is accessed online though, where does the differentiation between public and private information establish itself? One of Google’s founders, Sergey Brin, elaborated on privacy fears regarding user data that Google collects in the following excerpt with author:

“When asked why consumers should trust that Google would not abuse the private data it collects, Sergey Brin in 2007 told me that the fears people face are tied to distaste for advertising and to a fear of Big Brother, which is sometimes ‘irrational.’ He wondered: ‘How many people yesterday do you think had embarrassing information about them exposed as the result of some cookie? Zero. It never happens. Yes I’m sure thousands of people had their mail stolen yesterday…I do think it boils down to irrational fears that all of a sudden we’d do evil things (194).”

Herein lies the potential monster of a problem with this perspective. Although Google may not intend to do harm towards others but with the company’s incredibly expansive size, the potential for harm increases exponentially. Again, I do not think that Google is premised upon such mean spirited motivations. However, this quote reflects that one of Google’s founders seems as if he does not realize the influence, if it were so chosen, to eradicate user privacy through multiple media platforms.

Is this arrogance? I doubt it. Is it inexperience? Not quite. Rather, I think this insight is a result of so much new ground being plowed by Google that even one of the founders is not sure how to interpret such implications. I wonder….would it be wise to interpret this as a sign that regulations should be in place to help mitigate the damage or reduce the likelihood of data release IF a company like Google were to go rogue?? The potentially catastrophic results from this what if scenario could serve as a bellwether towards the eradication of online privacy.

Second, the semblance of innocence exhibited by Google’s founders wears thin by the end of the book. In many ways, the two founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, come across as intelligent, caring leaders who happen to make extraordinarily good business decisions as if by pure luck. This seems like a kosher argument for a company that uses the rallying cry “Do no evil.” to supposedly guide company decisions. I bought into this idea for the majority of the book, I freely admit. However, the truth surfaces when pieces fall into place towards the end of Auletta’s work. Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, told the author in a rather candid admission that Google is not just a search engine, it is a company using calculated maneuvers to garner major control across the entire media industry. One of the most fundamental components of this effort centers on advertising dollars. The more ways Google can secure these funds, the more power and flexibility Google has to direct how an entire industry operates. Paraphrasing Schmidt’s words, Auletta wrote, “Google wants to be the agent that sells the ads on all distribution platforms, whether it is print, television, radio, or the Internet (294).”

Finally, a quote by Larry Page from 2002 exemplifies the idea what search means in relation to Google’s business strategy. While speaking to a class at Stanford University, Page articulated his belief that “If you can solve search, that means you can answer any question. Which means you can do basically anything (322).” This reflection is a powerful one. Keeping in mind the aforementioned innocence and play on luck Page and Brin seem to showcase throughout their careers, this quote speaks volumes behind the real ambition driving the engine of Google’s future. Both founders realize the transformative power their company oozes. The search component of their company has become the building block to an entire media empire that is expanding rapidly into various corners of the media landscape from television and cellular phones to online advertising and book publishing. The result of this strategy is causing significant waves in ways media is made and consumed. Regardless if the affects of these efforts are positive or negative, it seems increasingly clear these affects are by no means the result of luck.





Public-Government Interactivity: An Example for the Future

19 12 2009

In the midst of partisan bickering and intra-party squabbling over major policy issues such as health care reform and the federal budget, it isn’t surprising some people are deeply upset over the current direction –or lack there of– of the United States government. However, I will not be weighing in on either of these political hot potato issues.

Instead, attention should be paid to an encouraging sign of the government actively soliciting public insights for greater transparency and interactivity. Luckily, I came across this awesome endeavor and felt it very worthy of passing along.

Following the lead of President Obama’s initiative for greater government transparency with the release of the Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies earlier this year, work is underway to increase public input on Data.gov’s future growth. For those unfamiliar with Data.gov, this website serves as a central nerve center of sorts for accessing a plethora of government information presented in one place online. The idea behind such a website is a strong one but it is clear that work remains to make the site more user friendly.

A promising step towards this feat comes through a collaborative effort between the Chief Information Officers Council and several other government groups to shape Data.gov based upon user suggestions. This attempt is being carried out now at the Evolving Data.gov With You website. Here, users can propose ideas for greater government transparency and efficiency that are then viewed by other visitors who can vote in favor of ideas they find most beneficial. The voting concept demonstrated here is very similar to the type of social ranking systems utilized by popular websites like Digg.com that rely upon user input to determine the popularity of user submitted stories.

You may be wondering:

  • Why is this important?
  • Why should I care that about this?
  • What’s in it for me?

For one, the idea that the government is actively working to make an easily accessible platform for visitors to shape how the future of Data.gov evolves is a rather new concept. This is especially relevant when considering it is not just a concept, it is actually being undertaken through actions.

Secondly, as citizens complain about the government turning a deaf ear towards what the people want this should serve as a demonstration of a changing mindset it Washington, D.C. President Obama proposed rather sweeping changes through the aforementioned Memorandum earlier this year to force government entities to tackle ways of making government more responsive to the people it is meant to serve.

Thirdly, the open forum for idea sharing and user contributions at Data.gov provides a free idea generator to the government. By soliciting insights from visitors who perhaps come from a wide range of professional backgrounds, the government can benefit greatly through the variety of different perspectives towards usability these citizens provide.

Along those lines, the website interface of the voting platform used with Data.gov is easy on the eyes and easy to navigate. The structure of each page on the site is consistent so as to limit the chances of a visitor getting lost with no way to retrace their steps. Also, the information presented is clearly separated into different categories allowing users to access the material they are most interested in without wadding through pages of unrelated material.

I have already voted for the ideas which I feel would be most beneficial to citizens trying to access and use information provided from the government. There are many ideas presently waiting for your vote. If you want government to be more responsive, you have to speak up. Here is a great opportunity to do just that. Encourage these initiatives to assist the government in order to help us. I did my part today in this process. Question is, will you do yours?





Encouraging Web design from the USPS

14 11 2009

When it comes to government websites, it is a rather safe assumption that very few people would characterize them as being aesthetically pleasing or easy to use. With that in mind, I recently was surprised by the United States Postal Service website.

From my perspective both as a citizen and as a student of interactive media, simplicity is tremendously important to website design. It does nobody any good if content is available online but the means to access it is so convoluted that people do not realize the power at their fingertips. Luckily, the USPS realized that a strong design premise would serve their organization’s needs online by way of catering to American’s mailing needs.

Immediately upon loading the homepage, I realized the color scheme is neutral but effective. The white color is, dare I say it, calming! Never would I think dealing with the USPS would be calming. However, for the website it works.
USPS Homepage

Clearly the website design was conducted from a users perspective. Based upon my recent research, this is a rarity for government sites as many are designed from a government agency perspective not the public user perspective. As your eyes descend the page, information is segmented into horizontal oriented boxes. This helps to show separation between different tools and features on the same page.

One of the best elements is a simple step-by-step animation showing how to take care of your shipping needs right through the website. It is appealing to the eyes and simple to understand. Instead of becoming lost in paragraphs of instructions, the images do much of the work. This helps to engage the user and I bet increases efficiency of the user experience as well.

In order to minimize the number of pages on the site, the use of interactive slide shows is demonstrated on the homepage. This is a good use of such a tool because it shows information that is of interest to the user only of the user wants to be exposed to it. Currently, this feature is used to showcase different holiday stamp collections being released in anticipation for the holidays. Not everyone will care to learn of this information so instead of making users wade through it in order to get to what they were looking for, it is made available in an unobtrusive way where the user has control.

There are a wide variety of tools and functions associated through the website. Some of these include:

  • package tracking tool
  • holiday mailing deadlines
  • postal rates
  • change of address capabilities
  • business mailing resources

Many more features are presented through the homepage, the ones above just represent a handful of what is available. Overall, the USPS website provides a plethora of tools for people to access online to assist in their shipping needs. The fact that this has been done with a keen eye towards design and functionality is encouraging as it bucks the trend with most government websites.