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A look back at a bad month for Google

The Drum takes a look at all the problems search engine giant Google has faced in February.

It may have risen to become the second most valuable brand in the world, behind Wal-Mart, although Microsoft has since bounced back when named the most trusted brand in Britain by the Centre for Brand Analysis.

Meanwhile, the company also launched its answer to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter with Google Buzz which is run through its email service gmail. The launch was much anticipated, but in the end Buzz didn’t live up to its title and would receive a very luke-warm response from browsers and the media alike.

And then the system quickly began to face allegations of privacy invasion – allegations that now look likely to end up in court, surroundings that many at the company may become more familiar with in the coming months.

Iain S Bruce, managing director of digital PR agency Revolver believes that it is still too early to judge Google Buzz and says that online ‘overnight successes’ are few and far between.

“From a Digital PR perspective its a service that certainly bears watching. The current Buzz format is perfect for distributing headlines, and if it gains enough momentum could become a useful tool,” explained Bruce.

But that’s only been the start of its problems as the company has been forced to explain its algorithms to the European Union regulators which also received complaints about its behaviour.

The complaints were made by Microsoft’s Ciao, price comparison site Foundem and French legal search engine fr about the fairness of Google’s search engine rankings as well as the company’s standard terms and conditions, all of which have been denied by Google.

On Friday, competitor Microsoft, which is one of the companies to make a complaint against Google, launched its most outspoken attack yet, when Dave Heiner, Microsoft's deputy general counsel, published a blog on the company's website stating that "Our concerns relate only to Google practices that tend to lock in business partners and content -- like Google Books -- and exclude competitors, thereby undermining competition more broadly."

Heiner called for more companies which felt ‘hurt’ by Google’s practices to step forward and complain also.
He added, "Ultimately the competition law agencies will have to decide whether or not Google's practices should be seen as illegal."

When the complaints were being made to the EU, and will now possibly also be made in the US too, Andrew Girdwood, head of strategy at Bigmouth Media, highlighted the timing by Microsoft which has just launched its rival search engine, Bing in America and the UK.

Girdwood said, “A year ago, Microsoft didn’t have a real challenger to Google, so if Microsoft can shake off a small percentage of Google users by making this a public interest case around anticompetitive behaviour – it will benefit. Google will spend a lot of time and resources defending itself in the EU. The timing works well for Microsoft.”

This is however, a case that Google has said it believes it can win - although will have found such accusations damaging to the brand.

Meanwhile, in a case which surely sets a precedent for shared content online, three Google executives were prosecuted for breaching privacy laws after a video of an educationally challenged child being bullied at school was uploaded onto the Google owned video-sharing channel, YouTube.

The executives were sentenced to suspended sentences for apparently not acting quickly enough to remove the offending video. Already this verdict has raised further questions about the possibilities and problems of policing the internet.

Andy Millmore, head of litigation at City media and entertainment law firm Harbottle & Lewis, commented: “This is an interesting example of the tension between two principles: First, that people and businesses can be responsible if they authorise, condone or facilitate wrongdoing by others.

"Second, that ISPs and service providers should not be responsible for their users' behaviour. The latter consideration is the thinking behind the E-Commerce Directive, which provides ‘safe harbour’ defences for ISPs and service providers which operate as either a conduit, caching or hosting service, meaning they are not liable where they have no actual knowledge and act promptly to remove or disable the information once put on notice.”

Millmore added that such ‘tension’ had been seen before in relation to file sharing, but at the heart of the case was another big question over how responsible search engines such as eBay, Google and Yahoo were for online trade-mark infringement by users.

"This case depends on local Italian law, but the safe harbour provisions come from an EC wide Directive, that you would have expected to provide a defence in this case. The decision attaches liability on a broader basis than we would have predicted,” concluded Millmore.

So how will the Google brand bounce back from what seems, at the moment, to be a never ending procession of body blows to its brand’s reputation, business strategy and overall operation?

Nick Ramshaw, managing director of Thompson Brand Partners believes that a brand that has grown to become so big and powerful was always set to face such a backlash, but does not doubt that it is a brand big enough to recover.

“When what you have invented is so fantastic and useful. Even if you are not the only one doing what you do, but your way is so simple, reliable and (now) familiar, it would take something very, very big to knock off your crown,” Ramshaw states.

So while it has a lot of issues to deal with, and many businesses looking to take their own pound of flesh, Google is likely to shake off its current problems and continue to grow and dominate cyberspace for some time to come.

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