Don't boycott Google because it's evil. Boycott it because it's terrible

Google's dodging taxes. But its worst crime is messing around with search results.

Google's Eric Schmidt went all out yesterday, saying he was "very proud" of his company's tax "structure", and that "it’s called capitalism."

Inevitably, this had led to calls for a boycott of Google until it starts to pay its fair share of corporation tax.

Of course, these calls have also marked out part of the folly of such boycotts. It's easy to boycott Starbucks: within 30 seconds walk of most UK branches you'll find more coffee. We are basically a nation of people selling coffee to each other with a bit of banking on the side.

Google is… harder. If you use any of its web services, you are likely to feel locked in (everyone knows your gmail address! Think how much work it would be to change your address books!); if you have an Android phone, you are probably contracted in without even a choice to leave; and if you use their web search, you'll probably have finished the search and clicked on a link before you even remember that you were supposed to be boycotting in the first place.

On top of that, of course, a boycott doesn't look like it would be as effective for Google as it was for Starbucks. Within days of the first allegations about the coffee company coming out, it had posted an open letter on its website; and then even before the big UK Uncut protests, it had already agreed to radically restructure the way it declares its taxes. Comparing that to Schmidt's bombastic comments, we can infer that Google might put up a bit more of a fight.

The thing is, people ought to be boycotting Google, especially their main cash cow, web search. Not because of tax avoidance, but because it makes a terrible product used only through exactly the same inertia which will kill any political action.

Once upon a time, Google search was the unambiguous best. Its page-rank system, which replaced manually editing search results with an ingenious methodology which used links to a site as guarantors of that site's quality, meant that it gave more accurate results than many of its now-defunct (or nearly so) competitors like Alta Vista or Yahoo! Search; its simple UI made it easier to use, as did its massive step up in speed, a fact reflected in its show-off display of how many hundredths of a second the search took.

Most importantly, Google refused to offer paid placement, a relatively common practice at the time which mixed advertising with editorial content: companies would literally pay to appear in the search results for a given keyword.

Those principles lasted a long time; even when Google started "personalising" searches, it was still aimed at reducing bad results. Someone who always clicks on cars after searching for "golf" probably wants different results than someone who clicks on sports sites.

Then came Google+. Terrified by Facebook, the company launched a rival social network, and in an attempt to catch up, decided to leverage its existing businesses. Personalised searches are no longer based just on what you have previously searched for. They're also based on your Google+ contacts, and what they've posted about and discussed. A piece written by someone "big on Google+" – a dubious accolade – can get boosted up the results based just on that; and strangers' faces have started popping up in results, like this:

It's not just the failed attempt at cross-promotion which has damaged Google; it's also been hit by the falling value of web advertising as surely as every other web business. It's responded by increasing the amount of page space devoted to selling things – and correspondingly decreasing the space devoted to it's actual product.

Compare, for example, this from 2005 with this from June this year. Although it's looking at Google US, don't doubt that it's coming your way as well.

There are alternatives. I like DuckDuckGo, which consciously strives to replicate the experience of Google circa 2005 (albeit with a number of powerful below-the-hood improvements). I'm not the only one; the site has shot from an average of 80,000 searches a day in December 2010 to around 1.7m a day this month. But really, it doesn't matter where you go – even if it's to Bing – so long as Google gets the message.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.