January 14, 2012 | Posted in: Kenya

You must have heard it by now. Mocality, a leading Kenyan online business directory, has accused Google of scraping its database, and fraudulently soliciting for business from business owners listed in that database. See full details in this blog post by Mocality’s CEO, Stef Magdalinski.

As you would expect, there has been a massive reaction online, both locally and globally.

Most people are condemning the “evil” Google and labelling this as a fraudulent scandal. But I think Mocality are just throwing a tantrum, and we are simply overreacting. And no, I am not playing devil’s advocate. My opinion is informed by the following facts:

1. The database Mocality accusses google of scraping was available for public use in the mocality website. Google did not hack or steal the database. Stefan himself acknowledges that Google did not use bots or any form of automated scraping. Instead, the data mining was done by “a team of humans”.

2. The purpose of listing business contacts in the directory is so that other people can contact those businesses. Google acted within that purpose. If you read through Mocality’s terms and conditions, it is debatable whether indeed Google violated those terms (sections 9.12 and 9.17 included) simply by contacting the business owners. The terms and conditions state that

You agree that you will not:…

9.12. modify, adapt, appropriate, reproduce, distribute, translate, create derivative works or adaptations of, publicly display, sell, trade, or in any way exploit the Site or Site Content (other than Your Content), except as expressly authorised by Mocality in these Terms of Service;

and

9.17. access, retrieve or index the Site to construct or populate a searchable database of business listings or reviews; (emphasis mine)

3. Google would have very little to gain just by using Mocality’s name. Don’t get me wrong, mocality is a considerably big name in the Kenyan online space. But it is not big enough to make Google desperate to appear to have a partnership with them, just to gain market share. In fact, it should be the other way round – mocality wanting to use Google’s name to get business mileage.

I don’t think the decision to use Mocality’s name was a matter of policy from senior levels at Google. At worst, it must have been instigated by an overzealous, and not entirely professional employee or lower level supervisor, one who is also not very conversant with the Kenyan online business market.

I often have the impression that the different teams at Google do not always pull in one direction, and that is why “scandals” like this one happen. Each team has an assigned goal(s). In an effort to attain the goal, the teams may sometimes do things contrary to the company’s overall policy guidelines. Remember the recent paid links scandal with chrome? Or the earlier one with Google Japan?

Recently I had a conversation with an online business owner whom I hold in high regard. He has built an online business empire that earns him over $5,000 every month, part of it from Google. He told me how his sites were badly affected by the recent Panda update. As an attempt to correct part of the problem, he removed all adsense ads that were above the fold. This is in line with the web spam team’s advice to show relevant content above the fold, content that is obscured by ads. (Reference).

Soon after that, a member of Google’s adsense team contacted him advising him to restore the ads since placing them there had better chances of attracting clicks, or something to that effect. Further evidence that at google, the left does not always know – or care about – what the right is doing.

4. The whole deal is not really fraudulent. Consider the amounts mentioned in the attached audio recordings as hosting charges, KSh 200 per month (approximately USD 2.4), do you think Google is so desperate for such small amounts to make it stoop this low? I don’t think so.

I, like many other observers in the Kenyan tech industry I believe, have been wondering what Google hopes to gain from its aggressive push of their free .kbo.co.ke websites. My initial hunch was that they ultimately want to get more small businesses to advertise in their Adwords platform. I still believe that that is part of the whole game plan. But today, I also understood a different aspect – a push to get more people creating google accounts, and by extension, join their social network Google plus, through which Google wants to dominate the world. But still, there’s no direct fraud involved.

In Conclusion
There is no doubt that Google’s actions were very unethical, by falsely claiming to have partnered with Mocality. But that was a dumb mistake. Mocality’s name was not going to add so much business value, Google being by far a more recognized brand than Mocality. Still this does not qualify to be called a fraud or scandal.

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I have been involved in the web development and internet marketing business for the past seven years or so. I therefore like to think of myself as an internet marketing expert, even though the truth is that I am continually learning in this ever changing field.

1 Comment

  1. Gaita
    January 14, 2012

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    Cold calling prospects mined from a competitor’s database and impersonating / insinuating a business relationship with the competitor, where non exists, is far from being ethical. By all standards, it is outright lying. It is a blot on the the brand Google.

    Just as Matt Cutts noted, “Mortified” is a good description of the world’s (I believe including many in Google) reaction to this unfolding. All is not lost though: there is a good lesson to be learnt.

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