Analysis: How can Google recapture its 'cool'?

David Quainton asks how the former ‘darling’ of the online world can turn the tide of hostile public opinion

Google enjoyed a golden childhood. From its inception a decade ago to its IPO in 2004, everybody's favourite search engine was universally loved, lauded and hailed as the saviour of the internet.

Much of this was because of the company's perceived friendly attitude. The 'Don't Be Evil' mantra was championed by techies, and users adopted the site both for its ease of use and apparent freedom from commercial binds.

But Google has entered a troubled adolescence. It is no longer the darling of forums and blogs, and the world is beginning to look upon its future with a less favourable eye.

That is not to say Google is loathed. According to a Nielsen/NetRatings survey in December 2005, the California-based firm surpassed Microsoft and MSN as the most popular online brand.

It outperformed Wall Street's sales and earnings estimates after being floated and anybody who bought early will still be satisfied with their investment. But since the IPO, storm clouds have gathered.

As Google expands beyond web search, increasing copyright and privacy worries have called into question how open Google's services can be. Last March, Agence France-Presse sued the firm for more than £10m for using its news stories, logos and pictures on the Google news service.

This year Google has received swathes of negative coverage for agreeing to create a specially censored Chinese website, cow-towing to the country's government in order to maintain its Far East foothold.

In the past fortnight, Google has taken on BMW, removing its website from its search facilities and accusing the German car maker of falsely increasing its search ranking. Even though in this case it was trying to uphold the integrity of its core product, this is not the Google people knew and loved.

Just two PR staff are dealing with the heightening media interest in the UK. Last week PRWeek revealed it has also started to hire PR agencies to help. But as the Google business evolves, where does the company's PR strategy stand right now? What can it do to prevent headlines such as the recent one in the New York Times: 'Relax, Bill Gates; it's Google's turn as the villain.'

Rhys Blakely, business reporter, The Times
'Google's efforts to up its PR game are no doubt prompted by the growing amount of negative press it is attracting. The backlash it has suffered over privacy issues and the negative coverage that followed its decision to enter the Chinese market on Beijing's terms must have hurt.

'What can Google do to maintain its reputation? Now that it has opened itself up to the media a little more, it has to maintain the quality of the dialogue.

'It needs to manage its product launches. Recently, hardly a day went by without a new service or tool being unveiled. I suspect this turned the press off. Separating the innovative stuff from run-of-the-mill upgrades became tedious.

'On its Chinese business, Google could have done very little differently. Its main competitors Yahoo! and Microsoft both have their own problems in what is a potentially massive market. Google is a now a big, publicly owned company and its duties lie with shareholders. Its reputation has changed accordingly.'

Sally Costerton, EMEA regional head of technology, Hill & Knowlton
'No one likes criticism and when you're the poster child of a generation and one of the most successful businesses on the planet, it's hard to take.

'But Google's management should take delight in the opportunity recent negative media coverage has given them. Handled properly, this warning demonstrates the need to take control of reputation and define the rules of engagement.

'As the business matures, it could look outside the tech sector to see how others have managed this transition.

As BP did with 'Beyond Petroleum', Google needs to develop a compelling point of view which embraces a global audience, maximises its enormous power and potential but explains the challenges it faces.

'Finally it needs to make sure it is able to communicate the message. Many tech firms have seen PR as just a tool in their marcoms armoury – useful to support sales but not much else. Some, such as Microsoft, now realise how PR can build both brand strength and reputation.'

Chris Green, technology editor, Computing
'We had an interesting photography problem last year when we were trying to get generic Google images.

'The company would not supply anything, so we dispatched our picture editor to its UK head office to take the usual signage and brassplate shots. He was barred from even setting foot in the building to ask permission and was ushered out onto the street and so far away he wasn't able to shoot any the street-facing signage.

'This is not the first time we have had problems with Google and photography. On the few rare occasions that we have had access to Google, we have faced bizarre and inexplicable preconditions on how we could photograph Google executives and the Google logo.

'Google's PR and marketing strategy has been a mystery to most of us for several years. It is only in the past month that we have managed to gain any useful access to Google spokespeople or information, and that is only because of the new agencies it has retained.'

Jonathan Jordan, MD and chair, corporate and tech, Burson-Marsteller
'Google has built a brand based on trust. But with trust comes responsibility to a broad stakeholder community that includes everyone from investors and users to governments and law enforcement agencies.

'Google's uncluttered homepage and mission to provide universal access to information are core to its success. Stakeholders will expect similar clarity on complex issues such as privacy, censorship and commercial strategy. Developing communications that strike a palatable balance between freedom of information and commercial necessity is a huge challenge.

'To maintain leadership requires insight, agility and management commitment. Google must be prepared to comment on contentious issues and, not only communicate its own thinking, but that of others ahead of the needs of the market.

'Google's success has been built on making answers easily available. If that success is to continue, it must embrace a more open corporate culture as well.'

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