Monday, January 30, 2006

The trouble with polls: Do No Evil

I like the concept of polls, but in practice they usually leave a lot to be desired. Take this poll question I just saw on the BusinessWeek web site:

Google is beefing up its search capabilities in China, but has to accept government censorship of results. What do you think?

Superficially, that sounds like a great survey question. One that I'd actually like to answer.

The problem is that none of the answer choices fits my desired answer. The choices are:

  • Good move. It needs to play by China's rules first. Reforms and Western-style transparency will follow
  • Bad move. Google is putting profit before principle
  • Not sure

I'm sure that it is a neutral move, neither good nor bad and everything depends how it plays out.

I can't agree with their rationale for a good move since "Western-style transparency" will not necessarily follow. It may, and I think that it will, but nobody has the kind of crystal ball to know that it will.

I can't agree with their rationale for a bad move since I don't think "principle" is necessarily involved at all. Besides, it's not clear that this so-called "move" will actually boost profits anyway. It may in fact be less profitable than other non-China deployment of Google assets.

The survey question asks "What do you think?", but does not give me an opportunity to express a choice that is consistent with what I think.

And that's just for me. Who knows how many other users were also unable to find a choice that even remotely captures their opinion.

Ultimately, I had no choice but to pick the lesser of evils and pretend that I was ignorant and pick "Not sure".

One problem with this question is that it bundles several distinct questions into a blended mish-mash, such that each user might perceive subtle differences in emphasis, rendering the results meaningless.

Ultimately, the problem with this poll question is that the author of the poll question is letting their own biases show through, and is maybe intentionally trying to make the question more provocative than enlightening.

My sense is that the intent of this question was to try to get at a simpler question:

Was it wise for Google to place business interests ahead of moral principles?

And even that question hinges on whether you believe that the slogan "Do No Evil" is simply a trite PR pitch or a core corporate commitment that is maintained by the majority of Google's shareholders. After all, it's that what Google is really all about? Or, do you believe that somehow Google insiders view outside shareholders as a necessary evil?

I'm all in favor of online polls, but I'd prefer that they be done a bit more professionally.

Of course, BusinessWeek has an up-front disclaimer: "Note: These are surveys, not scientific polls."

My bottom line: When it comes to poll questions... do no evil.

P.S. Please read Dave Taylor's post entitled "Google gets pragmatic and enters China."

-- Jack Krupansky


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home