Two weeks ago, Google changed its web search results to fool you into clicking on paid ads by mistake.
Last week Microsoft announced that an upcoming update for Office will force web searches in Chrome to go through Bing instead of Google – without consent and with no notice.
These are both terrible ideas, the kind of thing that erodes public trust and makes us understandably angry. The reaction to Google’s change was so swift and fierce that Google immediately backed down and promised to come up with something better. It’s impossible to imagine that Microsoft won’t also back down; it’s obvious that mobs of howling villagers with torches will storm Redmond if Microsoft actually hijacks a few million browsers.
Don’t worry. Chances are neither of these mistakes will ever affect you. Let me give you a few details, then tell you why it’s so troubling that these missteps were ever announced at all.
Google started using dark patterns to hide paid ads
Google is an advertising company. It dabbles in everything from phones to self-driving cars, but roughly 85% of the revenue for this trillion-dollar company comes from advertising.
Google’s search results page is so widely used that the ads on that page have outsized importance. (Bear in mind, though, that the vast majority of the ads that you see online on every website are handled by Google’s advertising network behind the scenes.)
Google has changed the appearance of ads on its search results page over the years. In 2011, ads were set off in a colored block, like the screenshot above. More recently, Google dropped the colored background but added a small “Ad” icon on a separate line with the website name in small print.
Two weeks ago, Google changed search results so that every website had a little icon on a separate line with the website name in small print. (The icon is the “favicon” for the site – a 64×64 pixel representation of the website brand.)
The effect was to eliminate any visual distinction between paid ads and organic search results. The screenshot below is a sample of what it looked like. It’s almost impossible to tell where the ads end and the real search results begin.
Technically, ads were still labeled. There is no question, though, that the intent was to make it more likely that you will click on an ad by mistake. One early survey concluded that the change increased click-throughs on ads by 4% to 10%.
Google’s change was an example of a dark pattern – a deliberately confusing and deceptive choice, designed to trick us.
The change was greeted by outrage online, with critical articles in every tech publication. Within a week, Google backtracked and reversed the change. Danny Sullivan, Google’s search liaison, said on Twitter:
“Last week we updated the look of Search on desktop to mirror what’s been on mobile for months. We’ve heard your feedback about the update. We always want to make Search better, so we’re going to experiment with new placements for favicons.”
The icons have disappeared from my search results.
Microsoft plans to hijack searches in Chrome and send you to Bing
In our divided world, the one thing that unites people of all cultures is that no one wants to use Bing for searches. Although Microsoft claims differently, a believable market survey says 93% of web searches are done with Google. Bing handles a minuscule 2.3% of web searches (and dropping, according to Microsoft’s financial report this week). It’s safe to assume that anyone doing searches with Bing also has other deep-seated personal issues. They deserve sympathy, not scorn. Teach them.
Last week Microsoft announced that in February it will force Office ProPlus users to do searches with Bing instead of Google. An Office update will install the “Microsoft Search In Bing” extension in Chrome and make Bing the default search engine. Users will not be informed ahead of time, and each person will have to hunt for the switch to turn it off and get back to Google searches.
This is browser hijacking. Microsoft’s own security program, Windows Defender, explicitly defines this behavior as malware.
Microsoft is behaving very badly.
There are two reasons that I don’t want you to worry about it.
- Even if Microsoft rolls out this update, it mostly doesn’t apply to individuals and small businesses. Office ProPlus is a license for the Office programs (Word, Excel, Outlook, et al.) that is mostly used by enterprises. You probably don’t have Office ProPlus. (Click on File / Account in Word or Excel – this doesn’t apply to you unless it says “Office 365 ProPlus” under Product Information, like this screenshot.)
- I can’t imagine that Microsoft will go through with this plan. Reactions across the board have been bitter and angry. A summary from Extremetech: “End users appear to be completely against this change. None of the comments at the MS page or Office Deployment Insiders are positive. Whether it’s Microsoft’s decision to install extensions without permission or what the company is actually doing, nobody appears to like or want this change.”
If Microsoft doesn’t back down completely, then perhaps it will change its plan and let users opt-in instead of changing the default search engine without consent.
With luck, this will be a minor annoyance, nothing more.
To be fair, Microsoft has good intentions. Microsoft is developing “Microsoft Search” to handle searches of internal company data. Imagine you work in a company with 100,000 employees. Microsoft runs everyone’s email, address book, and calendars; company data is stored in Microsoft Sharepoint and OneDrive for Business; and employees use Microsoft Teams to collaborate. All of that internal company data is hidden from Google. Microsoft is uniquely able to index the internal data and use AI to help you find files or schedule meetings or learn about other employees. Instead of being siloed in a separate app where users might overlook it, Microsoft wants internal company searches to be integrated with web searches.
Microsoft has a helpful service, but only if employees get in the habit of using it. It could be a competitive advantage for Microsoft in the enterprise market.
Sorry, Microsoft, but brute force and browser hijacking are not good ways to force enterprise employees to learn new habits.
Businesses are incentivized to misbehave
The corrosion in business and politics affects everything. Even companies with cultures built on ethical behavior are increasingly tempted to do bad things. These fumbles from Google and Microsoft are not awful, but they’re examples of the slippery slope that our society is currently sliding down.
It is a truism that big companies are forced to focus on quarterly stock prices and short-term growth, even if that comes at the expense of long-term planning. Anything that increases revenue is being considered, with few restraints.
At the same time, big companies are discovering that they can flout regulations without consequences. The Citizens United case opened the door for big business to use unlimited money to pressure lawmakers to remove regulations that might otherwise guide their behavior. Even worse, in the current Republican regime, the very concept of regulation is being rolled back as a matter of ideology. Companies are reveling in bad behavior – poisoning the environment, starting up new abuses of the financial industry, and destroying any vestiges of privacy.
Over and over again, big companies have learned that the consequences of unethical behavior are either trivial (witness the relatively small fines against Facebook in the US and EU that have not slowed its privacy violations) or come too late to help consumers (for example, the recent fines against former Wells Fargo executives, long after the years that the bank harmed customers with its toxic sales culture).
Republican politicians have literally devalued the idea of telling the truth. CEOs are following along, obscuring facts in financial reports and seeking any advantage in the market, by lying if necessary.
Meanwhile, the public is overloaded and distracted, unable to keep up with technology and our changing world. Companies can treat us as resources to be exploited for profit. Make customers angry! It doesn’t matter if we have nowhere to go. You’ll know what I mean if you’re a Comcast customer.
It should be no surprise, then, that companies with strong corporate cultures built on honesty and service, like Google and Microsoft, are tempted to fool us and bully us in an attempt to extract a few extra advertising dollars. Where are we going to turn?
Google famously built its corporate culture on the motto “Don’t be evil,” now updated to “Do the right thing.” I think executives and engineers at Google and Microsoft are genuinely committed to behaving ethically and treating customers fairly.
But market pressure is relentless. Even at the best companies, it must be tempting to treat customers as open pocketbooks, even if that hurts your products. Microsoft is busily scraping a few extra advertising dollars from Windows 10 by displaying horrible games on tiles on the Start menu. Google is hunting for new places to pummel us with advertising advertising advertising. And they’re the best of the best! They are shining examples of integrity compared to the data brokers selling your personal information, or the evil company selling facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies.
I’m an optimistic person. But in 2020, I feel like a groundhog, poking my head out every once in a while and seeing nothing but shadows.