Google, China and Brand Management

Google is walking a fine line.

On the one hand, they wanted to stay in the China market.  And why not?  There's a lot of money to be made there.

But what about that other hand?  The "Do No Evil" part that led one of the Google founders to be unhappy with the fact that the company was in China in the first place given that the searches were being censored?

Well, according to the new deal, the searches aren't being censored.  It's just that the sites are.  Or may be.

That's not Google's problem.

But is that really the case?

In a BBC interview, DJ Collins, Google's Head of European Communications, on being asked about that fine line between censorship of the results and censorship of the sites, said, "That's a different issue from saying that Google search, itself, is filtered, which, of course, it isn't.  But the access to some of those websites may be blocked according to what sites are blocked at any one time.  But that's different from saying that Google search, itself, is filtered."

This is one very fine line that the company is walking - not just with the Chinese government but with the perception of the company and its ethics worldwide.

Google likes to present itself as a good corporate citizen.  Socially responsible.  Providing information that everybody needs so that they can be best informed, make the best decisions, be the best citizens.

Do No Evil.

But when they have to tap-dance their way around their own answers...They're not filtering or censoring. It's the other guys....then their ethos becomes open for question in other arenas as well.

In Ken Auletta's wonderful book, Googled, he talks about exactly this dance and how it played out within the company even as the company was exploring entering the China market.  And even more as it played out when the "filtering" (because, let's note that it's not being referred to as "censorship" any longer) began.

And what about that cyber-attack that initially led Google to get out of China and begin redirecting its searches through Hong Kong - an unfiltered market for search results?  What happened to all the commentary by the company on protecting the information of its users?

Let's face it, Google is a very competitive company and, even though the advertising within search is its bread and butter, it has gone and continues actively working to go far beyond that arena for its revenues.

It has taken on Apple with its phones.  Microsoft with its Google Apps suite.  And with its Twenty Percent Days for ongoing innovation, it's just a matter of time before it takes on whoever and whatever is next.

Google is playing a long game.  Doing the deal and getting the license back in China wasn't just about search.  After all, it's such a distant - and becoming evermore distant - Number Two to Baidu for search in China, that this is about long-term presence and access to markets.  Not search.  And certainly not censorship. 

So, they did their deal and got back in - and that's all well and good.  The company will soon be presenting its quarterly results and the word on the street is that they're going to be good.

That's great news for shareholders - in the short term.  Because if Google is seen to be playing fast and loose with its reputation as a socially conscious company by tacitly supporting censorship - under any name - it risks its brand equity in the long run with the rest of the people who aren't sure they can take it at its word any longer to do what they promise.

No evil.