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As Google grows, critics emerge

As the company expands beyond search services, Net insiders feel alienated

Do you hate Google yet? At first glance, the question seems absurd. What's to hate about an Internet site where you can go and find out about practically anything, free of charge?

Less than a decade ago, you could have said the same of Microsoft Corp. It was once viewed as an heroic American institution, an upstart software company founded by a Harvard dropout who became a billionaire by outsmarting IBM Corp., the world's biggest computer firm. These days, even most loyal Microsoft users don't much like the company, perceiving it as an arrogant producer of slovenly software.

Is it Google's turn? Perhaps, said Frank Hayson, editor of Watching Google Like A Hawk, a website devoted to news about the company.

"Google is about to join, I think, that rarified level enjoyed by Microsoft, the New York Yankees, the United States of America," said Hayson. "Too big, too powerful, too successful, too rich. And you're starting to see the rumblings right now."

It's not the casual Web surfers who are complaining. But as Google expands beyond mere search services, it sometimes alienates tech-smart users who were once devotees of the company. Consider Google's acquisition of Blogger, one of the companies that launched the personal weblog craze. It's got Dave Winer climbing the walls. Winer, a Berkman Fellow at the Harvard Law School, founded UserLand Software Inc., maker of the blogging program Radio Userland. Winer says that Google may crush rival blogging systems like Radio Userland.

He points to the popular Google Toolbar program that's attached to millions of Web browsers. The toolbar makes it easy to do Google searches and block pop-up ads, but it also contains a link to Google's Blogger service. Microsoft's critics once warned that the company would use its browser toolbars to steer people to Microsoft products. Winer sees Google trying to pull the same stunt.

"Do they have a right to do it? Absolutely," Winer admits. "But I also have a right to hate them."

Then there's AdSense, a Google advertising service that displays ads on thousands of other website. Say you run a weblog site devoted to the TiVo video recorder. If you join AdSense, Google will display TiVo-related ads on your site and pay you a portion of the profits every time a visitor clicks on an ad.

That's what Matt Haughey did on his TiVo site, with impressive results. "I was hoping to make $5 a week so I could cover the cost of hosting," said Haughey. Instead, he's taking in hundreds of dollars every month in Google-generated revenue.

AdSense has made Google a lot of friends -- and enemies like Derek Powazek of San Francisco. Powazek was delighted with the couple of hundred dollars a month that Google AdSense brought in. Then one day, he got an e-mail telling him his ads were being clicked too often. Google's computers decided that the excess clicks were being generated fraudulently in an effort to boost Powazek's ad revenues, so he was kicked from the program. Powazek pleaded innocent, but to no avail. Google won't reveal the method it uses to detect fraudulent ad clicks.

"This was the first time we'd ever been able to make a little money with our content," Powazek said. "To be unceremoniously booted with no warning, with no recourse, was like twisting the knife."

Susan Wojcicki, director of product management at Google, insists the company's methods are fair, but she won't reveal them, saying that the information would help crooks beat the system. But that means AdSense site operators must walk a tightrope, never certain if a sudden spike in visitors will cut off their main source of revenue.

"People are pretty scared about that," said Hayson of Watching Google Like A Hawk.

An AdSense operator himself, Hayson also worries about it. He runs a sister site devoted to Microsoft, and when there's big news about the company, visits to his site soar. So Hayson contacts Google to warn them, and avoid being kicked from the AdSense program due to too many "fraudulent" ad clicks.

These gripes from Internet insiders have little to do with the daily experience of ordinary Web surfers who love Google. But a few years ago, a similar group of malcontents began to transform Linux from a grad student's hobby into one of the world's leading operating systems. If anybody offers a search service even remotely as useful as Google, people like these critics will switch without a qualm.

For all his Google-hatred, Winer admits he still uses it. But for how long? Major rivals like Yahoo and Microsoft are beefing up their offerings, and Winer is waiting to be impressed.

"If Yahoo comes out with a good search engine, I'm quitting," Winer said. "If Microsoft comes out with a good search engine, I'm all over them."

Derek Powazek is also convinced that a good Google replacement will be along any day now.

"Every few years there's another big fish," he said. "Nothing lasts forever on the Web."

True enough. You remember AltaVista -- barely. It was the Google of the late 1990s, acclaimed as the world's best search service. But the tech-heads dropped AltaVista for Google and brought the rest of the world along with them. If Google makes them mad enough, it could happen again.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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