Shortly after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, supporters of the decision noticed some topical styling around the search bar when they Googled the word “gay.” Reasonably enough, many interpreted this as Google’s response to the decision. As others have pointed out, though, the banner predates the Court decision, having been rolled out in honor of LGTBQ Pride Month.
Call it synchronicity, then—not just that a decision favorable to many LGBTQ Americans* arrived during a month earmarked for putting the community and its struggles in a positive light, but also that Google became one way that online supporters celebrated the news. Even when you’re Google, you can never have too much publicity, especially when, if the latest figures from Pew Research are any indication, it’s publicity that aligns with the concerns of a growing majority of the country.
There is a more immediate benefit as well, though. Google makes money by displaying contextual ads. Any time you use Google to search the Web—or when you direct someone else to a search—Google serves up ads based on those search terms, as well as on data the company has collected about you. That’s a wildly profitable business even when the traffic is strictly utilitarian. When people are visiting ad-bearing pages for little more than the novelty of how Google has styled that page, it’s a windfall.
I mention it because Google has a reputation for doing fun things with their site. In the past, they’ve turned their image search display into a game of Atari Breakout, made the search page do a barrel roll, and instructed transcontinental travelers to “swim the Atlantic Ocean.” The most persistently visible of their personal touches are Google Doodles: artistic recreations of the Google logo in honor of an event or influential person. There are countless examples of such touches, but then, I hardly need to tell you that. You’ve likely seen them yourself, and chances are, someone you knew linked you to one or more of them.
When Google was still the scrappy young upstart of the search industry, those Doodles and easter eggs imbued the company with an idiosyncratic charm. They looked like the sorts of thing techies implemented out of love. A logo restyled with bowler hats and tart green apples? Someone at Google must have a yen for Magritte. But that equation changes when you factor in money. Now that Google is one of the most profitable companies in the world, it’s difficult to draw a clear line between love and marketing.
At the same time, our perceptions of Google as a company have been so thoroughly branded that it’s easy to get the order of events backwards. Looking back through the archive of Google Doodles, it suddenly becomes clear that the more idiosyncratic entries belong to Google’s behemoth (rather than bohemian) days. For roughly the first decade, the bulk of their Doodles hewed closely to the calendar of traditional holidays—Christmas, Halloween, the occasional Bastille Day. Prior to about 2007, there were no Doodles honoring Maurice Sendak’s birthday or the anniversary of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. If the variety of Doodles can be taken as an indication of personality, then Google has pulled off the improbable feat of growing more personable as its workforce has swelled to more than 30,000 employees, its revenue to 11 digits, and its purview to include mobile devices, self-driving cars, and personal surveillance devices.
Which is, of course, a way of suggesting that it just ain’t so. The Doodles, the April Fools Day pranks, the easter eggs—even if there’s someone at Google that feels strongly about any given one, the functional result is still a form of marketing. The message is, “We’re fun! We share your interests! We wear our passions on our sleeves!” It persists because it works. Science buffs see a logo honoring Neils Bohr and encourage others to take a look. Ugandans see a special logo in honor of their Independence Day and incorporate it into their general feelings of civic pride. Google picks up an extra stream of traffic, people who weren’t necessarily planning on searching anything, and with them, an extra opportunity to add to their ledger for the day. Even if they make relatively little extra on that particular day, the impression that our interests are shared by people within the company breeds loyalty for Google.
My feeling of revulsion grew acute on May 8th of this year. I was still a bit queasy from the yearly routine of online April Fools pranks, perhaps, but what put me over the edge was an elaborate animated Doodle in honor of Saul Bass. By all rights, I should have been enthusiastic. There was nothing pointedly cynical about it; for all I knew, the artists who produced it may have even shared my admiration for Bass’ work. And that was just the point: I didn’t know, couldn’t know for sure, couldn’t even work out the odds of it. The only thing I could say with any confidence was that someone at Google thought that this would appeal to people like me, and that we would visit the site if we knew it was there. That I could be more sure of the marketing logic than that the homage was genuine suddenly made the entire thing seem vulgar.
So it may be that there are employees at Google who feel strongly about same-sex equality. It may also be that they’re the ones responsible for the rainbow banner on the result pages for LGTBQ search terms. Yet, all the same, all that’s made certain by the viral spread of links to the page is the acuity of Google’s marketing.