Friday the 13th – Unlucky for Google

According to Wikipedia, fear of Friday the 13th is called friggatriskaidekaphobia. After today, I wonder whether Google will suffer from this in the future.

It began this morning when Stefan Magdalinski, CEO of Mocality in Kenya, the country’s largest business directory, posted a blog entitled: ‘Google, What Were You Thinking?


Magdalinski exposed how Google had been systematically undermining Mocality, a Kenyan business that had painstakingly built up a comprehensive database of local businesses over two years at considerable cost.

He claimed that Google had been accessing this data at peak rates of 2500 pages per day, in order to obtain contact numbers for local Kenyan small businesses. No crime committed here you might think.  However, Google Kenya employees had been using this information to call these businesses, and were misrepresenting Mocality to sell a new Google service called Getting Kenyan Businesses Online (GKBO).

Mocality was able to prove all this by undertaking a detailed tracking operation and an elaborate sting.

Google’s initial response was muted, acknowledging the accusation of using “publicly available customer data without permission.”

It later became far more contrite, issuing a personal statement from Nelson Mattos, Vice-President for Product and Engineering, Europe and Emerging Markets:

“We were mortified to learn that a team of people working on a Google project improperly used Mocality’s data and misrepresented our relationship with Mocality to encourage customers to create new websites. We’ve already unreservedly apologised to Mocality. We’re still investigating exactly how this happened, and as soon as we have all the facts, we’ll be taking the appropriate action with the people involved.”

Google had been busted.


This news comes the end of a bad week for Google. Earlier it launched a Google search update  “Search plus Your World.” However, several commentators complained that in doing this, it was skewing search results to favour those found on Google+.

Even Twitter went public to criticize this move. Spokesman Matt Graves issued a statement: “We’re concerned that as a result of Google’s changes, finding… information will be much harder for everyone. We think that’s bad for people, publishers, news organizations and Twitter users.”

Notice a theme emerging here?

The impossible dream

It’s not surprising that people are outraged when a multi-billion dollar global business gets caught engaging in the kind of underhand tactics employed against Mocality in Kenya. It’s worse when that business is Google. You know, the one that claims to ‘Do No Evil’.

To be fair, Google is not exactly in crisis. It dominates the search market, raking in billions of dollars, and its phones aren’t doing too badly either. But this success lies at the heart of the problem.

A couple of years ago, Jeff Jarvis wrote an excellent book entitled What Would Google Do? This book imagined what would happen if the organisation applied its game changing logic to everything from telecommunications to airlines; television to education.

I imagine a lot of people at Google read the book too, because the company is now operating in many of those industries. Jarvis argued that this would be good for consumers, but as his predictions come true, many people are feeling nervous. Incidents such as those exposed today in Kenya only add to those fears.

From a communications perspective, Google’s recent troubles highlight that its much-loved doodles and savvy advertising will not be enough to protect its corporate reputation. Having set such a high standard for its own ethical behaviour, it must ensure that it delivers on its promises, because thanks to its search engine, there is no hiding place on the web.

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