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Behind the Brand: Google

Peter Salisbury

7th September, 2011

Unless you live on the moon, Google is an integral part of your day to day life, but just how ethical is the all-conquering search giant whose motto is ‘Don’t be Evil’? Peter Salisbury investigates

Chances are you have already used a product developed by internet giant Google today. Maybe you checked your email, searched the web or used their Chrome browser, made a call on a smartphone with their Android operating system or needed to look at a map. Perhaps you did all of the above. Perhaps you did more. Although it started little more than a decade ago, the California-based firm is beyond ubiquitous – it’s a fixture in the language of our day-to-day lives. When was the last time you heard someone talking about ‘searching the web’? Today we ‘google’ things rather than search for them; we don’t check our mail, we check our Gmail. When we chat on the web, more often than not, we 'Gchat'.

Some 82 per cent of all English-language internet searches on desktop computers - and a staggering 92 per cent of all searches from smartphones - use Google’s outwardly simple yet hugely complex search engine. The company’s nearest competitor in web searches is Yahoo, which has a miserly 6.4 per cent share of the desktop market and 5.6 per cent of mobile searches. And more and more people are searching the web. In May 2011, US internet research firm ComScore estimated that Google had one billion unique visitors every day - equivalent to about 15 per cent of the current population of the world. Despite Google’s ubiquity, not everyone knows exactly how the company makes its money, or, more importantly, whether or not it lives up to the semi-official motto, ‘Don’t Be Evil’.

The first point is relatively easy to address: Google is one of the biggest advertising firms in the world. Google mines the information its users search for to tailor the ads they see and the sponsored links which come up at the top of most searches, selling premium advertising space to the highest bidders on specific keywords through its AdWords business. The company has also branched out into advertising on websites and even offers sites cash to run its search AdSense software, a win-win deal for many smaller sites. The business is a lucrative one: Google reported record-high revenues of $9bn in the second quarter of 2011, turning a net profit of $2.5bn. Most of the revenues the company generated - $8.7bn to be exact - came from advertising through its search and website link-ups. Most of the rest of the company’s offerings - its mail service, its increasingly sophisticated Google Talk software or the new social media offering and Facebook competitor Google+ - are designed to build the company’s brand and drive more and more users to its search engine. But can a money-making corporate machine like Google not ‘be evil’?

Certainly, the company has a strong record when it comes to sustainability. In 2007, it committed to becoming carbon neutral by reducing waste, using as much renewable energy as possible and offsetting its emissions through carbon credits.  Google is also focused on what it calls ‘additionality’ - making sure that all of its sustainability projects generate further change. Making the company carbon neutral is a tough job. At the heart of Google’s business are huge, energy-intensive data centres which house the supercomputers and storage needed to make the company’s web applications work. Independent estimates suggest that there are around 30 to 40 centres worldwide, each using around 100MW of electricity - the output of a small power plant - although it is impossible to know how many the company has exactly, as Google is highly secretive about them.

The company reckons that its data centres are among the most efficient in the world and claims that its most recent openings use less than half the energy consumed by average data centres. But no matter how efficient they are, these data centres still require huge volumes of electricity, and Google is increasingly focused on making sure that as much of the energy it uses comes from renewable sources.

To do this, it has invested hundreds of million dollars in renewable energy projects, mainly solar and wind, and has entered into huge long-term purchase agreements with major renewable energy producers at a total cost of somewhere in the region of $800m. The company says that in most cases its investments and supply agreements have made it easier for the companies it works with to secure additional funding. Google has also spent millions on making sure that the offices where its software engineers work are carbon neutral wherever possible. The rooftops of its Mountain View headquarters, the so-called ‘Googleplex’, are covered in solar panels which generate 1.6MW of electricity. Helpfully, you can actually check out the extent to which the solar panels dominate the complex by looking at the satellite view on - what else - Google Maps.

The company is also using its technical know-how to work on a series of projects to help make the world a more energy efficient place. Its free PowerMeter service allows home owners to track how much electricity they are using at home, while it is working on software to make driving a car more efficient using a mix of its map and ‘cloud-surfing’ technology. Perhaps most excitingly, it has also come up with a plan, ‘Clean Energy 2030’, to create $4.8 trillion in the US and cut fossil fuel consumption in the world’s biggest energy market by 88 per cent for electricity generation and 44 per cent for vehicles. In particular, the plan suggests that it is possible to cut carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation by an incredible 95 per cent.

As far as sustainability goes, then, the company is putting its money where its mouth is. But there are some lingering concerns over some other aspects of the company’s business. Most recently, Google was forced to pay out $500m for displaying ads for Canadian pharmaceutical companies in the US which allowed American consumers to buy powerful drugs without a proper prescription. Google has also come under fire for restricting the scope of its web searches in China after launching in the country - a huge potential market - in 2006. However, last year the company decided to lift all search restrictions on its Chinese sites, moving its regional headquarters from the mainland to Hong Kong after hackers in China - thought to be government agents - broke into the mail accounts of human rights activists in the country.

Perhaps the biggest concern is the amount of information Google has on its users, and it is perhaps because of this above all that the company has been so keen to push its ethical credentials. If you regularly search the web, use Gmail, and chat on Google Talk, or more recently, hook up with friends via Google+, then Google has a vast array of information on how you live. With this data comes a great deal of responsibility, and it is probably because of this as much as anything that Google has been so keen to push its ethical credentials. However, as long as it keeps up the good work on sustainability, and continues to encourage greater flows of information worldwide, and sponsors start-ups in everything from biofuels to healthcare, the company will remain one to watch - and use.

 

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