One year later, nobody knows what Alphabet is -- and that's a godsend for Google's public image problems

Larry PageChris Hondros/Getty ImagesAlphabet CEO Larry Page

Last August, Google announced it would change its name to Alphabet, which would effectively be a holding company for Google and its various businesses (YouTube, Android, etc.), as well as Google’s more outlandish experiments, like its moonshots factory “X,” its investment arms, and more.

The reasons provided by Google mainly had to do with clarity for investors. By creating two specific segments of Google, investors and shareholders could separate the strengths of Google — namely, search and ads — from its riskier moonshots, like self-driving cars. Another reason: Google’s then-CEO Larry Page wanted to take a back seat to operations in order to focus on his bigger dreams, like the company’s moonshots in health and energy.

That’s all well and good for Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and the various executives at Google and Alphabet. But one year later, if you ask a random person off the street if they know what Alphabet is, they wouldn’t know.

This Google trends data, which compares the volume of Google searches for “Google” versus “Alphabet,” says it all:

Google alphabet trendsGoogleThe number of people Googling ‘Alphabet’ is basically negligible.

And that, one would argue, is probably the biggest benefit from the name change: Google’s more controversial projects, such as its efforts to expand its reach with accident-prone drones and sensitive health care technology, no longer have Google’s name on them. They’re now owned by “Alphabet,” an innocent-sounding company you’ve probably never heard of.

Google has wrestled with its public image for years

For over a decade, Google was the darling of the Internet Age, providing the best search experience, as well as the best online maps and email experiences. Its unofficial motto was “Don’t be evil,” a reminder that while the company manages a ton of personal data, it must never use it for “evil,” which would tarnish the important bond of trust Google had with its customers.

(“Don’t be evil,” by the way, also created a near-impossible notion: that Google would never do anything possibly perceived as “evil,” which is a challenging if not impossible expectation to live up to.)

Towards the end of the 2000s, Google’s image started to change. A big moment was when Google introduced Android in 2008, an operating system that looked and felt a lot like Apple’s iPhone operating system that was introduced one year prior. People found it suspicious that Google developed Android while its then-CEO, Eric Schmidt, sat on Apple’s board of directors during the iPhone’s development. Making matters worse, Apple’s late founder Steve Jobs called Android “outright theft” and vowed to destroy Android, further fuelling feelings that Google wasn’t living up to that “Don’t be evil” mantra.

Other instances in recent years where Google came across as creepy:

  • In 2010, Google’s Street View cars were caught eavesdropping on people’s WiFi connections.
  • In 2011, Google agreed to forfeit $500 million after a criminal investigation from the Justice Department found Google illegally allowed advertisements from online Canadian pharmacies to sell their products in the US.
  • In 2012, Google circumvented the no-cookie policy on Apple’s Safari web browser, and paid a $22.5 million fine to the FCC as a result.
  • Also in 2012, Google tried to create a single privacy policy across all its services, which outraged customers as they believed this would make it easier to sell data to advertisers.

While changing the name from Google to Alphabet, and reorganising Google’s various properties under Alphabet, doesn’t change the past, it does help prevent similar PR debacles from happening in the future. Since it’s technically Google’s parent company currently working on all the projects one might consider “creepy” — like drones, self-driving cars, genetic engineering, machine intelligence, or its project to extend the human lifespan — the name “Google” is kept out of people’s mouths, and kept out of the media to some degree as well.

All of this to say Alphabet and Google are not “bad” or “evil” companies just because of this PR shift. If anything, it’s extremely smart of Page and co. to separate Google’s uncertain experiments from its solid-yet-mundane search and ads business. But the staggering difference in public awareness between Alphabet and Google is worth noting; so if you ever see a news headline about “Alphabet,” just think “Google.”

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