CNBCfix review: Searching for an
angle in Bartiromo’s Google doc

          Posted: Sunday, December 6, 2009

If Maria Bartiromo were to try Googling herself at this moment, she might be troubled by the suggestions she sees.

The collection of terms provided by Google didn't stop her from producing a largely favorable hourlong documentary on the company and its execs — and not even ask them about it.

More on that in a moment. Bartiromo recently headed out to California but forgot to pack some stories. Her hourlong documentary, "Inside the Mind of Google," lacks a news peg. This a very influential business few people understand. There is some decent material here. Bartiromo's production though mostly serves as a Wikipedia chapter index — Founding, Purpose, Profitability, Controversy.

CNBC bills the program as a "rare look at the world's most powerful technology company and its crown jewel, the Google Internet search engine." Little about it is rare, and some might question if it's truly "the world's most powerful technology company." If it disappeared tomorrow, people would probably still find their way around.

Most telling, as usual, is the crucial opening segment (14 minutes) before the first commercial. Bartiromo begins with images of the Google office playground — employees in casual dress, sitting on rubber balls, playing with toy marbles, working out at the gym, getting massages, enjoying the cafeteria food, having their laundry done. Google operates these perks, which Bartiromo says cost a "fortune," because employees of this caliber demand "fun."

That this is the most important thing to say about a company says much about the relevance of this program.

It would be more relevant if it developed the employee theme. According to this profile, Google had 20,000 employees in 2008. What do all of these employees do? How do they get hired, what do they think of this environment, how many leave out of unhappiness and how many leave to start their own ventures, what are the average salaries, what do former employees say, etc. Bartiromo cites an expert saying the lucrative Google Adwords feature is practically pure profit. It's simple, and devastatingly effective. Surely 20,000 employees aren't needed to run it.

But that might be confrontational, and the company would likely balk about granting interview access to talk about employees. So we get a Cliffs Notes tour of The Biggest Things Google.

The controversy is restricted by Bartiromo unfortunately to one category: data privacy. She interviews a few professors who warn that Google is keeping identifiable records that could one day end up in the hands of the government or some other third party.

That's important, but it's also a what-if. Virginia professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, a Google watchdog, notes "Right now Google hasn't harmed anyone." More on that in a moment.

Among the more pressing issues, all ignored by Bartiromo, are rights to books, currently in negotiation. Some wonder if anyone will purchase a book if they can read all/most/some of it for free in a Google search.

Then there is the newspaper argument, recently championed by Rupert Murdoch, that Google is preventing a pay-for-online-journalism model by searching behind pay walls and producing search results. And that its search results reward entities, such as Huffington Post, that summarize other publications' articles and list every keyword and often rank higher on Google search results than the original article.

And then there are YouTube copyright concerns, plus fears that terrorists or stalkers could one day easily locate targets via Google satellite or street images.

And how about old-fashioned defamation concerns. If one goes to the Google page and begins to type "Maria Bartiromo," Google helpfully offers 10 search suggestions that include an extra word. Two of those words, combined with Bartiromo's name, seem downright false and perhaps actionable if someone in "legit" media posted the phrase on a Web site. Others seem reckless speculation or rumor-mongering — and worst of all, aren't even matched by the top sites listed in Google's search results for that term. One term suggested after "maria bartiromo" by Google (we'd list it here but don't want to be accused of rumor-mongering) delivers the Maria Bartiromo Wikipedia page as the second result — even though the word in question is not on that Wikipedia page. Anyone simply typing in "Maria Bartiromo" is immediately going to be introduced to these terms before ever being directed to an independent Web page that may or may not actually feature one of Google's suggested phrases.

Bartiromo says worriedly to Google exec Marissa Mayer, "You guys really know everything about me." Obviously, they don't, but they're happy to pass along any suggestions others might have.

Is it possible to defame someone just by associating their name with something in a Google search? Who knows. Bartiromo doesn't ask.

CEO Eric Schmidt, regarded as one of the best CEOs in the world but disappointing in this program, offers a condescending excuse for maintaining sensitive search details — "I think judgment matters. If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." Sure, don't get sick and have a secretive medical concern and try to find a doctor or anything like that.

Bartiromo's fixation on Google privacy is even somewhat misleading. Computer privacy issues go far beyond Google. Everyone knows employers can read their employees' e-mails, that Internet Service Providers can probably track which pages their subscribers view, that probably every Web site or host keeps an electronic log of site visits that could probably be traced if absolutely necessary.

How about, whose stock is raging ahead faster than Google's. Amazon constantly reminds its customers what they've bought — forever. It uses these purchases to recommend new purchases. It's got your credit card, your purchase history, your viewing history, your address, phone number, e-mail, much more than a simple Google search knows about you.

And everyone seems to love it.

What is the Google equivalent to Microsoft's operating system, the cash cow? According to Bartiromo and an expert she cites, it is Google AdWords. "It generates more than 95% of Google's total profits, $4 billion in 2008," Bartiromo says. "They have more profits in that company than the entire media business," says John Battelle, an expert on Google who calls it "the most successful company in the history of the world."

This too would be fertile material for an entire hour. Bartiromo focuses on one small-town treasure, Paul Bond Boots in Nogales, Ariz., which already had a devoted following but after turning to AdWords, business jumped 20%. According to this article in The Examiner, clicks were soaring after this program aired, not surprisingly. Days after the first airing, the Paul Bond Boots Web site was deemed unreachable because "bandwidth limit exceeded," and the sponsored-link ad was no longer appearing on the Google page with Bartiromo's suggested searches.

There are great business stories here on both levels. One is that the effect of this advertising is absolutely measurable; Paul Bond Boots only pays Google for actual clicks, from which it can determine its sales percentages. Another is that local-business gems that once were only known out-of-town by tourists and relatives can reach international audiences almost ridiculously easy.

Parts of "Inside the Mind" are a bust. Bartiromo talks with Hartmut Neven, who's leading a "Google Goggles" project aimed at providing "visual search" of images. This project is a new revelation to competitors according to Bartiromo but is still in the planning stages. She didn't show enough of the features for viewers to make a judgment, and we were left with techies sitting around a table mostly concluding that it's useless.

Notably dry is the segment on police department use of cloud computing, or plans to do so, in Washington, D.C., and L.A. Paul Weber, president of the L.A. Police Protective League, warns that the privacy issue could lead to informants and others getting killed and make the city unpoliceable.

Bartiromo doesn't bother to talk about a very popular Google subject — its stock price. This is of course because stock prices can change significantly overnight, and this program will air for more than a year. Despite being called in this program "the most successful company in the history of the world," the share price of GOOG, according to a chart at Google finance, remains well below its all-time high in late 2007, whereas Amazon and Apple have set all-time stock highs just recently. Apparently, that material is best left to "Fast Money."

The host does note that Yahoo once had the chance to buy Google, and passed. This is another good theme that could serve on a broader scale as material for its own hourlong show. Why, for example, was Sears buying Lands' End many years ago instead of buying Obviously, many companies (Time Warner, for one) did buy attractive Internet targets, but they didn't always pan out.

The editors of "Inside the Mind" missed one, as Bartiromo refers to Kevin Bankston's organization as the "Electronic Freedom Foundation" when a sign is shown in the program as "Electronic Frontier Foundation."

Bartiromo's program is not unlike CNBC's recent look at Coca-Cola (review here). This one has more advantages, a much much newer brand rooted in innovation, rather than tradition, that many people still don't know much about. The average age of Bartiromo's guests is about half that of those in the Coke program but should've been younger still.

For its reach, transparency, simplicity and price (nothing for search), Google is a wonderful company. It's the card catalog of the Internet. Will it dominate the world? The guess here is, with so much money being made in AdWords, eventually competitors will figure out how to encroach. Search will likely become compartmentalized; users looking for cowboy boots may use Google to find the clearinghouse for boot sellers, which will then deliver relevant results and not genealogy trees of people named "Boots." The relevance of Google's general search results, as noted above, are dubious at best. Higher-traffic pages always get the nod, even if the search terms appear several paragraphs apart and are not relevant to that page. These are computers, not humans, dictating what we should see, and when they start insulting us, we should take notice.

Other reviews of "Inside the Mind of Google":

New York Times: "After about 12 minutes of such fluff Ms. Bartiromo turns into a real journalist"

South Coast Today: " 'Mind' reminds us that there was a time (before Google) when Microsoft looked like the Goliath of information technology"

"Inside the Mind of Google" (2009)

Featuring: Sergey Brin, Larry Page, John Battelle, Marissa Mayer, Kevin Bankston, Frank Pasquale, Eric Schmidt, Candace Carpenter, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Vic Gundotra, Hartmut Neven, Paul Bond, George Bond, David Fischer, Paul Weber, Dave Girouard, Demetrios "Jim" Vlassopoulos

Host: Maria Bartiromo
Senior executive producer: Mitch Weitzner
Senior producer: Wally Griffith
Producer: Morgan Downs
Editors: Lisa Orlando, Richard Korn
Lead editor: Patrick Ahearn
Camera: Chris Balcom, Victor Calderin, Jim Curtin, Joe DeWitt, Jerry Frasier, Alex Herrera, Bill Irmscher, Gim Lay, Marco Mastrorilli, Gerard Miller, Oscar Molina, Mike Vaughn
Additional camera: David Dellaria, Robert Fitzgerald, Raul Marin, Stan Pechner, Ashley Stringer, Joe Victoria, Patrick Wong
Audio: Dave Baumgartner, Michael Bidese, Torence Brown, Mike Cantrell, Dave Foerder, Chris Tribble
Lighting: Luke Seerveld, Nick Boeder, Brent Cyr
Original music: Nick Kitsopolous
Contributing producer: Lulu Chiang
Global creative director: Victoria Todis
Art director: Dan Dutches
Senior animator: Jacqueline Dessel
Designer/animator: Wale Adekanbi, Peter Kourkoumelis
Designer: Nick O'Connor
Deko operator: Anne Bochicchio, Daphne Valero
Studio director: Dan Switzen
Director of post production: Vito Tattoli
Manager and chief photographer: Angel Perez
Studio crew: Carl Anthony, Ricky Carlo, Anne Foos, Geoff Keehn, Steve Philips, Kyle Romaly, Sean Riley, Rob Van Rhyn
Archivist: David Evans
Unit manager: Pamela Gaskins
Intern: Michael Beyman
Vice president, long form programming: Ray Borelli

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