Friday, February 12, 2010

Column: Google: Friend or Foe of #Gov20?

[Warning, long post ahead ...]

Like any writer, I try to explain the general context around which I am writing and conclude with an argument based on that explanation. This article started getting away from me in terms of its length so I decided to flip the model on its head. In the interests of keeping your attention I am going to come out and state my argument at the beginning and then explain just how I got there.

Stating it bluntly ...

If Google were truly a friend of #gov20 it would be pursuing innovative ways to ensure that citizens can quickly access the most relevant government information when they search for it. Maybe they already are, but if they are, I don't see it.

I have sat through a couple of Google pitches in the last few months during which Google sales reps have tried to convince government agencies that purchasing Google Adwords is the best way to ensure that departments and agencies are found when people are making related search queries on Google.

My contention is that buying Google Adwords is neither innovative nor the right approach. Given that you can already segment Google search (by country, images, video, maps, news, books, blogs, etc.) how hard would it be to add an option for government services?

Google already tracks your IP address, there is no reason that it couldn't easily provide options based on your geographical location. In addition to all of the existing options for search segmentation, Google should provide me with the following ones:

  • Federal government services;
  • Provincial government services (or in my case Ontario Government Services);
  • Municipal government services (or in my case City of Ottawa Services); and
  • All government services.

Here is a quick mock up of what this could look like:

And if that is too much to ask, embed it in a sub menu system like the other segmentation options. When writing this, Mike, like any good editor, asked me a couple of tough questions. His underlying point: Google doesn’t have any obligation to provide this type of service. It is a private profit-making company. Findability of government services on the web should be primarily the responsibility of the government.

I don’t disagree. The question is how do you motivate a company like Google to do something like this? Simple, you show them the benefit. The more obvious one is that it keeps Google in front in terms of its search application. If you knew it could locate government services better than other search applications, where would you turn when you need that information? The less obvious one is that if Google adopted this model it could sell Google Adwords on the results pages of the government services search. This could create entirely new revenue streams because it would be the closest any corporation could get to physically advertising on government websites.

How I got there ...

Ok, now that you have the kernel of the argument I am making, I can provide some context. Over the past 6 months or so I have sat in on two meetings between public servants and Google representatives. Firstly, please don't take my commentary below to be an official position of a public servant working for a given department because it isn't. Truth be told, I wield neither the decision-making authority nor the budget required to engage or disengage in professional arrangements with Google. My position is strictly informed by my digital citizenry and what I know of the web and government services in a general sense.

Second, please don't take this column as Google hating. I don't hate Google; I just think they aren't living up to my expectations of what a good corporate citizen looks like in one very specific way. Perhaps my expectations have been ill-formed based on all the good things I've heard about the company, the good things I've written about the company, the books I've read about the company and how Google has completely penetrated my online experience.

Off the top of my head, Google is my default homepage on all six of my points of contact with the web (2 desktops, 2 laptops, 2 mobile devices), it’s the only search application I use, it’s my email client, my chat client, my calendar client and home to all 4 of my blogs (now defunct, current professional, current personal and a work in progress). I use Google alerts, Google Reader, Feedburner and Google Analytics (no I don't rock Chrome, I still use Firefox). If for some reason Google went the way of the dinosaur my online experience would fundamentally change. In short, I rely on Google. Furthermore, I think it is worth noting that I haven't paid a cent for any of the services Google has provided, and for that I am truly grateful. Consider this my official thanks to Google.

Given my reliance on Google – a reliance that is likely quite prevalent among my contemporaries – my position is a hard one to take. I want to like Google (and I do); look at all they have done for me and what they continue to do for others.

I recently read both "Trust Agents" and "What Would Google Do?". I actually read them right after one another, literally putting one down and picking up the other. The conclusion I came to was that Google is essentially what Brogan calls "Agent Zero". On the web, everything points back to Google in some way, shape or form. We may have six degrees of separation (or Kevin Bacon) but we have far fewer degrees of separation when it comes to Google. Truth be told it is Google's very mastery of the web that is exactly what has me worried.

Google has earned their place in our information society and I don't begrudge them for it. What I begrudge is being told by sales reps that in order to ensure that citizens can find information on government services they need to buy Google Adwords.

Now, I am sure this was never the explicit intention of the sales pitch, and I do understand that Google needs to make money (remember all the stuff they just give away). That's just how I read the situation. I'll explain the pitch in greater detail below and let you judge for yourself.

The Pitch ...

Unsurprisingly the Google reps opened with data. The data showed that:

  • Canadian citizens are digital citizens;
  • the majority of Canadians use search engines (like Google) to find information about government; and thus
  • findability on the web through search is paramount

On the face of it, I don't disagree, but because all of the data they use in their presentation is proprietary, I can't run the numbers myself. In my opinion, if Google wants the audience to make their case to their agency then they should hand us the data instead of just flashing it on a slide.

On the heels of the data comes the not-so-soft sell: examples of searches where one would expect to see government programs listed in the top 5 or 6 results but where no government information was found. There are however some interesting caveats worth noting.

The first is that they used screen captures as opposed to searching in real time. Obviously this means that they get to pick and choose which examples to show. Moreover, they weren't date- or time-stamped. In other words the slide content was stale. In my opinion a more effective way to deliver the message would be to ask someone in the audience what program they work for and run a live search about that particular program. I myself have done it many times, it’s a little trick I picked up from a consultant friend of mine.

The second is that they didn't actually click the "pages from Canada” option on the static examples that they presented. Which, to my mind, most Canadians seeking Canadian government services would click, I certainly do.

The third is that they discussed earlier in the day how rapidly mobile is growing in Canada but didn't address how paid listings interact with their mobile search. Search on their mobile site either doesn't list paid results or doesn't differentiate between paid results and non paid results, both of which are problematic albeit for different reasons (more on that some other time).

The fourth is the potential bidding war that could arise between departments who are working on a joint initiative. If two or more agencies partner on something and want to ensure that their site is found when people search for that something they could wind up driving up the price of the related Adwords to get the same information to the same people. While one would hope that the departments would work together and coordinate their efforts, the opposite is not unheard of. A possible result is that agencies expend greater resources to achieve the same result, while Google's profit margins increase.

Fact checking ...

Given the above, I had a bit of an issue accepting the facts as they were being presented and ended up pulling out my blackberry and searching the same terms on Google that the reps were presenting in their slides. What I found was that their examples were by and large incorrect. Again, I'm not trying to say that they were altered only that they were dated.

Led me to the question ...

All of this led me to the question of whether or not Google – in this particular instance – is a friend or foe of #gov20. I personally question a corporation who wants government to pay to ensure that citizens can find their services on the web. In my opinion a good corporate citizen in the digital era should be worrying about connecting citizens with timely and accurate information about government services when those services are being sought after, not when someone is searching for a term that may or may not be related to those services. The more responsible approach is the one I mocked up above.

Given everything I outlined above, what's your take? How can Google best position itself as a friend of Government 2.0? Should it even bother trying? Is it already trying?

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