Disaster Alerts Help Google Grow Its Competitive Ad-Vantage, Strengthen The Brand

Late yesterday Google revealed it would be issuing “Public Alert” disaster warnings using Google Maps. Sounds great, but combined with other recent news it adds to bigger worries that Google is diluting its brand. Here’s why that’s not the case.

Google’s new Public Alerts are a continuation of the role Google took in the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011. However, instead of simply providing ad-hoc portals to collated and relevant data post-disaster, Google’s Crisis Response Team, a new release says, will work to “surface emergency information through the online tools you use every day, when that information is relevant and useful.” Meaning if there’s a hurricane headed your way, Google will make sure you know it somehow. But how much of this is about altruism?


Some, for sure. But mostly this is about Google. Specifically it’s about how all of Google’s recent moves, including this one, are actually about concentrating on becoming the search portal for everything to everyone, and alongisde this delivering its core targeted advertising.

The new Alert tools draw information from “meterological and other sources and displays them on Google Maps” with the option to click on “more info” on individual alerts to reveal extra detail, and an on-link to the source of the information. That means data from NOAA, the National Weather Service, and the USGS, among others, will be presented in a structured way so that you can tell if something bad is on its way, when it may happen and what “resources are available to help” (perhaps the most important part of this equation).

It’s potentially an incredibly useful system with far-reaching consequences in terms of publc safety and education. Just as Google’s tools proved very helpful in earlier disasters, it’s likely that by collating them in a more organized way they’ll be even more useful in the future. They may even save lives.

But there’s a slight niggling worry exposed by this thought. This is Google we’re talking about, after all. The same Google that pretty much dominates the world’s Net searching habits. It’s also the same Google that just the other day, while the world’s attention was focused on Apple (how convenient) revealed its broadest, most dramatic and perhaps most controversial privacy changes yet. In the guise of streamlining privacy policies and making better use of all the data its various services collect about every user’s habits–currently penned up in different boxes in its servers–it’s going to collate everything together in one place.

Undoubtedly this will exponentially increase Google’s power to understand its clients needs and behavior, but it’s not optional and if your thoughts are even slightly aligned with some conspiracy theorists’, then you’ll be uncomfortable that the subsequent file Google has on you may be more detailed than any the CIA could pull together.

This factor has resulted in a backlash, reaching even to international governmental levels.


Just the other week, Google splashed across headlines as its latest financial reports weren’t quite as stellar as everyone had hoped–with what Reuters calls a “surprise drop in [its] search advertising rates in the fourth quarter” leading to discomfort on Wall Street, and analyst cries of unease with Google’s vague direction. Because, though it is of course primarily a search engine, nearly all of what Google does in the way of providing services is designed to funnel data into its hugely lucrative targeted advertising business.

And yet we may speculate that Android isn’t quite the new direction Google had hoped for, and though it too dominates its smartphone markets, gains by rivals like Apple could imply that consumers are wising up to this too. Android, for all its headline-grabbing power, may even be making more money for Microsoft than Google itself (thanks to labyrinthine IP issues). Google’s Google+ Your World is also still stirring controversy because in its efforts to push its own social network, Google seems to be promoting it at the expense of its rivals, and these companies have even cried foul on the whole scheme, implying it’s actually a disservice to search customers.

And while all this is going on, Google tries some new Disaster Alerts–a fringe business at most. That does all look terrible.

But Google is actually refining itself. After it ditched some of its extraneous research schemes, it’s now aligning its privacy policies, super-powering its customer habit databases, lighting a match beneath its social networking system, and dressing its offerings up with politician-friendly efforts like Disaster Alerts. All of this will firm up its core business, and allow better ad generation.

So is Google really moving in a highly nebulous fashion, a symptom of which is that it actually owns a Crisis Response Team among its employees ready to, perhaps incongruously, save people from death? No. Google is sensitive to its pseudo-monopoly in search. Domination like this is hard to maintain, especially in an economic environment where continuous growth is all but demanded by shareholders.

Looking at the bigger picture you can see that Google’s actually trying to be smaller (in some ways), tighter, smarter, and more efficient–sensitive to its search-related advert miss. It’s a classic business maneuver, and it aligns with CEO Larry Page’s recent use of the world “beautiful” to describe what Google does. That’s an epithet that wouldn’t apply to a sprawling, lazy firm with a weak sense of direction and purpose. Google is not nebulous at all, and analysts may be better off not worrying it has a lack of direction. It definitely does.


[Image: Flickr user David Blackwell]

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I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)