The Banality of Google

Thoughts on the nature of search and the importance of corporate philosophy.

I've noted that many people are worried that Google will “sell out,” now that the firm has gone public. It's a legitimate concern, I'm sure, but part of me wants to say—“hey, there, worrywart, stop your GoogleBombing GoogleFrenzy, enough GoogleWhacking all over your GoogleBlog, IT'S TIME TO GET ON THE CLUETRAIN!”

Because Google can be trusted. Google's unofficial slogan is “don't be evil,” and you can totally trust that. I mean, even Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) bought stock in Google! She totally did. If I had a colicky infant daughter, I know I could leave her with Google, and she'd be okay. And if you need more proof that the IPO won't change anything at Google, check out the new Google interface, currently in beta:

Of course, you don't arrive at a morally profound motto like “don't be evil” without some serious thought. Here are some of the mottoes that Google tried out and rejected:

  • Google! Dance with the devil, but go home before it gets serious.
  • Google! We won't commit genocide in most circumstances.
  • Google! Don't eat no babies.
  • Google! We could do good, but we're like, whoa.
  • Google! Begone, demon!

Those suck! So how did Google come up with “don't be evil?” If you do not know the answer, you clearly did not attend an Ivy League business school like the author of this article. So I will tell you: they did focus group testing of their mottoes. They tested the evil brand concept one day, and the good brand concept the next. On evil day, they brought in vampires, werewolves, Satan, and a kraken.

Google Focus Groups Coordinator:
When I say “evil” what do you think of?

Virgin necks!

I am evil!

Can I have another 20,000,000 Diet Cokes?

The werewolf wouldn't say anything. The next day, as expected, they interviewed some angels and saints, but that was boring. At the end of the focus groups, they concluded that good was kind of outmoded, not to mention that their VC's were totally unfamiliar with the concept. Evil, on the other hand, was probably a long-term legal liability. So they decided that “don't be evil” was a good compromise.

This was in 1998, and it was excellent timing, because there was this huge run on evil in late 2001, with the Axis of Evil, and evildoers, and on and on, and if Google hadn't gotten there first, people might have been like, “there goes Google, getting on the evil train, trying to cash in on mass death in their unofficial slogan, isn't that just like them?”

Oh, and I almost forgot—after the first focus group, and this is true, Satan stayed after to get his $30 and then tried to tempt Google. He said, “Larry and Sergey, I will give you everything! I will give you a cluster of 100,000 Linux servers!”[1]The Google guys were like, “Linux servers, huh. That sounds cool.”

And Satan said, “I will give you an algorithm to rank pages based on links.” And they were like, “you totally read our minds! Did you go to Stanford?” And Satan said, “I will give you six years of press coverage by fawning, lazy journalists, and a million slavering blogger acolytes to command as you will.”

Now the Google guys were nodding. They were like, “whatever you need, Satan. We'll give interviews to pornographic magazines, sell ads to the world's worst polluters, whatever you want.” So Satan said, “To seal the deal, I will give you a new logo—one that does not look like half-digested fridge magnets!”

But Satan had miscalculated! Because the logo was Google's number one secret technological advantage, the one thing no one would ever think to copy: it was so bad that it always made their search look good, no matter what could happen. So they said, “begone, foul wyrm, destroyer of worlds!” Although they later invited him back as a consultant. And that is how Google became the Jennifer Lopez of the Internet.


The Photo Diary of Hector, a Tiny Robot Whale
A very important story, told in pictures and headlines.
Tuesday, September 7, 2004


1. And right then this guy with long hair and an old-school hard drive platter on his head came screaming into the room, right through the /dev/wormhole portal, and yelled “GNU/Linux!” over and over. Even Satan was freaked out. But eventually the screaming man went back to Cambridge, MA through the portal. [Back]




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


@20, by Paul Ford. Not any kind of eulogy, thanks. And no header image, either. (October 15)

Recent Offsite Work: Code and Prose. As a hobby I write. (January 14)

Rotary Dial. (August 21)

10 Timeframes. (June 20)

Facebook and Instagram: When Your Favorite App Sells Out. (April 10)

Why I Am Leaving the People of the Red Valley. (April 7)

Welcome to the Company. (September 21)

“Facebook and the Epiphanator: An End to Endings?”. Forgot to tell you about this. (July 20)

“The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. An essay for TheMorningNews.org. (July 11)

Woods+. People call me a lot and say: What is this new thing? You're a nerd. Explain it immediately. (July 10)

Reading Tonight. Reading! (May 25)

Recorded Entertainment #2, by Paul Ford. (May 18)

Recorded Entertainment #1, by Paul Ford. (May 17)

Nanolaw with Daughter. Why privacy mattered. (May 16)

0h30m w/Photoshop, by Paul Ford. It's immediately clear to me now that I'm writing again that I need to come up with some new forms in order to have fun here—so that I can get a rhythm and know what I'm doing. One thing that works for me are time limits; pencils up, pencils down. So: Fridays, write for 30 minutes; edit for 20 minutes max; and go whip up some images if necessary, like the big crappy hand below that's all meaningful and evocative because it's retro and zoomed-in. Post it, and leave it alone. Can I do that every Friday? Yes! Will I? Maybe! But I crave that simple continuity. For today, for absolutely no reason other than that it came unbidden into my brain, the subject will be Photoshop. (Do we have a process? We have a process. It is 11:39 and...) (May 13)

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Bantha Tracks. (May 5)

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