Is Google in Vermont to Do Good or Buy Political Influence?
Google is coming to Vermont this week, offering free website design, web hosting, how-to business seminars and discount advertising to local businesses.
What’s not to like?
Plenty, warns an organization that represents almost every other search engine, including Microsoft’s Bing. FairSearch.org says it’s not a coincidence that Google is giving it up for Vermont when two of the state’s top pols have voiced concerns about the Internet giant’s business practices.
A Google spokeswoman says the company’s efforts in Vermont are in keeping with its informal corporate motto: “Don’t Be Evil.” “We are very excited to be in Vermont because there’s a high proportion of Vermont small businesses that are not online,” said Becca Ginsberg. “We also wanted to see what it’s like to bring an online offering to a rural state.”
Vermont might be small and sparsely populated, but it wields enough congressional clout in Washington, D.C., to impact Google’s bottom line. The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, which happens to be chaired by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), has been holding hearings about the ways that Google, Apple and other leading tech companies collect, store and use customer information. Leahy created a special subcommittee this year to specifically examine the nation’s data-privacy laws, and has introduced legislation to give greater protections to consumers.
Last week, the Judiciary Committee announced that one of its subcommittees will hold a special hearing in September focused specifically on Google, titled “The Power of Google: Serving Consumers or Threatening Competition?”
Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell also has been raising concerns about Google’s anticompetitive behaviors and data-privacy policies, including the collection of unencrypted information by Google’s Street View car as it passes through neighborhoods. That car has visited Greater Burlington in the past few weeks.
Sorrell serves on the 12-member executive committee of the National Association of Attorneys General. In that capacity, “I have had attorneys from Microsoft and other companies come from New York or Washington, D.C., in the last couple of months to complain about Google and its alleged anticompetitive behaviors,” said Sorrell. In addition, he’s moderated two panels related to Google and its search-engine algorithms. “We’ve had academics and practicing lawyers on all sides of the issue of how Google operates,” said Sorrell.
Vermont is the second state in which Google is rolling out its all-day Get Your Business Online seminars. Three seminars — two in Burlington and one in Rutland — will be held this week. Each seminar will consist of three key workshops: “Get a free website,” “Running your business online” and “Introduction to Google AdWords.”
Seventeen organizations — from Rural Vermont to the Vermont Chamber of Commerce — are promoting the three, daylong series of workshops. More than 300 people have preregistered.
Google first launched its state-by-state effort earlier this year in Texas. Vermont is number two, to be followed by “Google Fiber” projects in Missouri and Kansas.
“I wish I could tell you there was some great science to this, but we’re actually starting our rollout across the country in places where we have people on the ground,” said Ginsberg.
Google has an office in Austin, Texas. Vermont-based Matt Dunne is manager of U.S. community affairs for Google. He ran for governor last year, but lost to Peter Shumlin in the Democratic primary.
Google has another Vermont connection: Bill Maris, vice president at Google Ventures, which invests about $100 million a year in start-up and emerging tech companies. Maris graduated from Middlebury College before founding Burlee.com, a South Burlington-based web-hosting company that he sold for a tidy profit. Maris still maintains an apartment in Burlington. He’s a featured speaker at two of the three Vermont events.
Is Google Ventures looking for a Vermont investment? Ginsberg wouldn’t say.
“We have nothing to announce on this right now, but Google Ventures is looking at businesses in Vermont, as well as across the country,” she said.
How do those in the business of designing websites feel about Google’s sudden interest in Vermont? Ted Adler of Union Street Media doesn’t see it as competition. The more local businesses that are online, he reasons, the more likely they’ll come to local firms like his to expand their digital offerings.
He’s psyched that Google wants to get more Vermont businesses online — even if it’s to get them to advertise on Google Places. “Local is kind of the last-mile problem with the Internet,” said Adler. “There’s a lot of people who are going really hard at the local space right now — Angie’s List, Yelp, Foursquare and Facebook’s Places. So, it doesn’t surprise me that Google is going into that space, too. I don’t see this as threatening at all. The more Google is involved in Vermont, the better for Vermont.”
Google’s moves are much more offensive to FairSearch.org, self-described as “a group of businesses and organizations united to promote a healthy Internet future…” Those “businesses” include Expedia, HotWire, KAYAK, Microsoft, Sabre and TripAdvisor, among others. In short, every Internet search engine specialist except Google. FairSearch.org accuses Google of putting its own products ahead of theirs in search rankings — even though the aforementioned search sites pay Google for better placement.
“By putting Google Places listings at or near the top of the page, that has the effect of pushing down everyone else and allows Google to capture the majority of the clicks. And they, in turn, sell those spaces to businesses and force them to pay even more if they want to get into that prime position,” said Ben Hammer of FairSearch.org. “All that we’ve been asking is for more transparency and more openness about how Google operates.”
Some Vermont businesses are in agreement. Maplehurst Florist in Essex Junction recently discovered FairSearch.org through the Vermont chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. “I used to pop up at the top when you Googled florists in Essex,” said Jon Houghton, Maplehurst’s owner and manager. “Now, when I do search, it comes back with a whole list of florists above me — eight of them not even based in Vermont. I’m the most longstanding florist in Vermont. How do you get more legitimate than that?”
This is how Hammer, whose organization has reached out to both Sorrell and Leahy, is connecting the dots: “At the time when members of Sen. Leahy’s committee and the world are looking closely at whether Google’s business is dominating the marketplace,” he said, “isn’t it interesting that [Google is] getting involved in the home states of these senators and doing everything it can to paint itself as a friend of small business?"