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ONLINE BUSINESS

Somebody's Watching You
 

Googled yourself lately? Then you know it's nearly impossible to keep anything hidden anymore.
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It occurred to me the other day that, with all the Googling I do, I've never Googled "Google." Hardly anyone else has either, apparently; I Googled "Googled Google," which seemed like one way to check, and came back with 404 hits--barely a blip in the Googlesphere. The word Google itself returns 217 million hits on Google, well over four times as many as for dog, and more than twice as many as for bush, which presumably includes references to both the presidential and the leafy variety.

It's hardly news that Googling has become a near-ubiquitous phenomenon. But I think Google and the world of search engines is coming to have an even more profound impact on the business world than most managers realize, and in two ways. First, the ability to hunt down information on the Web isn't merely a great convenience anymore--it's becoming a critical success factor. What's more, companies can now be so freely examined by the world at large that they're going to need to adapt themselves to the scrutiny.

Let's consider that scrutiny. When it comes to thinking about how a company fares in a Google search, most of our attention goes to the "search-engine optimization" game--the unending race to get a website to show up high in the search results. But that attention is misplaced. In our ever more Google-savvy world, what really matters isn't how your website fares in a keyword search, but the sum total of all the information that turns up whenever someone Googles you--much of it information over which you have no control. Whether you like it or not, in Google World, almost all companies are becoming transparent.

Hand-held-device maker Palm, for example, is highly secretive about upcoming versions of its popular Treo smart phones, deploying near-KGB-quality subterfuges to protect the new designs. But last year, Treo users trolling the Web pieced together enough information to figure out that Palm had registered domain names for as of yet unannounced products called the Treo 670 and Treo 700. How'd they do it? The company had apparently used a Boston University professor as a front for the registrations, but the Web trawlers discovered the prof was a Palm consultant. Search "Treo 670," and you'll find other leaked tidbits, such as the fact that the 670 will be the first Palm product to be powered by Windows software. Apple Computer, for its part, can't seem to keep anything a secret from Web rumormongers, despite CEO Steve Jobs's well-known mania for nondisclosure.

An explosion of blogs and third-party product and service review sites makes things even harder. Such sites already are making pricing information a matter of public record. Research Organics, a Cleveland biochemicals manufacturer, for example, would prefer to impress would-be customers with its array of products before discussing price. But that strategy often is not possible, says CEO Rob Sternfeld. That's because a number of chemical-industry-oriented websites now post Research Organics' product prices and specs, along with those of competitors. "You see side-by-side comparisons of chemicals at a lot of sites now," says Sternfeld. "Some sites are like chemical eBays."

How do you adapt to the new transparency in Google World? For starters, see what's out there. You've no doubt Googled your own company and products. But have you really taken the time to pore over all of the results? Even if you have, you better do it again, and keep doing it at least once a week for the rest of time, to see what's slipped in. The hit that dings you may seem obscure, but thanks to Google there are customers, partners, investors, and regulators who will find it. "You have to be aware that a lot of people are looking at what's out there on you," says Kermit Patton, of SRI Consulting Business Intelligence in Menlo Park, Calif. Patton notes that some companies set up automated searches that will alert them to any new Web mentions of companies they do business with. "That's one reason some organizations set up damage-control operations to deal with negative hits," Patton says.

The new transparency is even more motivation--as if there weren't plenty already--to play fair and square, be friendly, and sell something you're proud of. To my eye, the biggest single source of negative comments about companies on the Web is nonresponsiveness to customer questions and complaints. The occasional beef is unavoidable, of course, but settling disputes fast, whatever their merits, is the best way to avoid bad feedback--as any successful eBay seller can tell you. If you wait until the venom hits the Web, there's almost nothing you can do, given the speed and unpredictability with which information travels in cyberspace.

Of course, you can always come at your detractors head-on. You can jump into third-party review sites to strike back at your critics. Delta Air Lines, Microsoft, and the popular social networking site Friendster have all fired employees who ran blogs the companies found objectionable. And Apple Computer has sued Web posters who traffic in information about unreleased products. My reviews: bad idea, bad idea, and bad idea. Few people value free speech more than Web users, who disdain attempts to intimidate information sharers and are not afraid to fight back. A better approach is to try to drown out the negativity by making sure there's at least as much good, or at least neutral, stuff out there.

The people and companies you do business with are becoming transparent too--and you can take advantage of it.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that the people and companies you do business with are becoming transparent too--and you can take advantage of it. The information needed to understand customers, build partnerships, develop better products, and keep an eye on competitors is mostly sitting there on the Web. That means businesses need to give real thought to making sure they've got the right people spending enough time looking for the right kind of information and that there's a mechanism for getting this intelligence into decision-making loops.

Googling has become so strategic, in fact, that many companies farm it out to experts. SRI Consulting's Patton runs a service called Scan that provides clients with business insights its experts distill largely from data freely available on the Web. Patton declined to discuss how much this sort of thing costs. But a quick Google search turned up a website on which a company claims Scan quoted it a price of $50,000 for the service. (Patton says the figure is at the high end of Scan's price range.)

Research Organics' Sternfeld knows a thing or two about the value of Googling. Managers there all spend time digging through the Web for mentions of experimental drugs that might contain the kinds of biochemicals the company makes. Then they search for research papers linked to the drugs--at which point they offer to supply the researchers who wrote the papers with the chemicals at a great price. "If they start using us when they're in development, they'll bring us along when they go to production," says Sternfeld. "We go from grams to thousands of kilos." The firm has also searched out companies selling compounds in violation of its patents, and in one case has already negotiated a substantial royalty agreement.

If transparency seems to be the order of the day now, just wait: According to some estimates, Google and other search engines can access only about one-quarter of all the webpages out there, because the rest are password-protected or otherwise not easily accessible. But that's unlikely to be the case for the next generation of search engines. Who knows? Maybe it'll give all those dogs and bushes a chance to even the score with Google.

David H. Freedman, a Boston-based writer and Inc. contributing editor, is the author of several books about business and technology. Email him at whatsnext@inc.com.

Last updated: Sep 1, 2005

DAVID H. FREEDMAN: A Boston-based contributing editor, Freedman is the co-author of A Perfect Mess, which examines the useful role of disorder in daily life, business, and science.
@dhfreedman




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