It all started with Burning Man. In 1998, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin took time off from coding search algorithms to jump in a car, drive to Nevada, and bake in the desert with circus performers and ecstasy-addled freaks. On a lark, the two men tweaked Google's logo to tip off hipsters that they were out of the office, planting a Burning Man image inside one of Google's letters. "They wanted to communicate with the users, in a fun, lighthearted way, that they were going to be away," says Dennis Hwang, Google's Web-master manager. "Anyone in the know would know where they were."
That kicked off a tradition almost unique in the history of corporate branding. While it's usually gospel truth never to mess with the logo, Page, Brin, and Hwang tweak the Google home page several times a year on a lark, partly to advance their company's distinctiveness, and partly because they just feel like it. They've posted Google "doodles" to commemorate the invention of the laser, the launch of Sputnik, the World Cup, and Piet Mondrian's birthday. The spirit of their doodles, they thought, was pretty clear: Science is cool, art is cool, let's have a little fun.
But in the last few years, as Google has grown to dominate the world of Internet search, some people have detected a more sinister motive behind its choice of days to commemorate. From the National Review to NewsBusters and InstaPundit, some of the country's most prominent conservative opinion journals and news sites have published stories and blog posts denouncing Google for subtly pushing a liberal worldview in its doodles while steadfastly refusing to commemorate patriotic or religious holidays.
Few keep a closer watch on Google than the editors of National Review. For years, they have monitored Google's doodles in search of value judgments about America. When Google ignored Memorial Day in 2006, editor-at-large Jonah Goldberg wrote on NRO's Corner, "It's kind of sad. They change their logo for all sorts of holidays and occasions. Just last week they paid tribute to Arthur Conan Doyle's birthday. But Memorial Day doesn't seem to rate anything at all." In 2007, online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote, "What, no Easter? I wasn't expecting a risen Christ, but at least an Easter bunny?" Last June 6, Lopez sniffed, "So today is the D-Day anniversary. Today is the day RFK died 40 years ago. So Google is celebrating Diego Velazquez's birthday, natch."
Even when Google commemorates Independence Day, Lopez has looked for hints of a clandestine liberal sensibility. Last year, she printed a comment from a reader who claimed that the American eagle on Google's logo was clutching olive branches—but not arrows, the symbol of America's military might: "I think they've gone with a remodeled 'peace is patriotic' bumper sticker. They just couldn't bring themselves to do something 'American' without making some kind of signal about current policy."
All this vitriol leaves Hwang mystified. All they're trying to do, he says, is bring a little humor and quirkiness to their search engine. "This is just something that grew organically, a culture that developed over the years," Hwang says. "It made Google feel like it wasn't just a cold machine, not just an algorithm." It's not an issue of Google—like, say, American Airlines or America Online—trying to mask its national origin from foreign eyes. Still, almost from the beginning, the company caught hell for corrupting Americans with evil doodles. "We got e-mails complaining that we celebrated Earth Day," Hwang laughs. "I was just surprised. We all live on this planet, and celebrating that just seemed like a harmless thing to do."
Perhaps the most extreme condemnations come from the editors of the populist WorldNetDaily.com, who have all but accused Google of advancing the cause of godless communism. "Google consistently ignores patriotic American holidays such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day," WorldNetDaily's editors wrote last October, "but today it acknowledged an accomplishment of the communist Soviet Union, which launched the Sputnik satellite fifty years ago." The news site, which has also complained that Google's search rankings keep its stories in the basement, even ominously reported that the company misspelled its logo when commemorating Valentine's Day last year. "Previous Valentine's Day logos for Google, obtained by WND, have no such possible confusion for spelling," the site noted. Could Google even have it in for love?
"If you're going to choose to commemorate some really quite bizarre occasions, and never, never in their history, never once commemorating Memorial Day, which is a very significant holiday in the United States, I think that says something about who Google is," says WorldNetDaily editor Joseph Farah. "By the way," he adds, "I like Google's product. I wish there were another company out there that didn't make me sick to my stomach."
Indeed, the blowback against Google just underscores how ubiquitous and powerful the company has become. Google now accounts for more than 60 percent of all online searches conducted in the United States, and whenever any company grows this indispensable, it seems to acquire a quasi-public quality, as if it has an obligation to make official pronouncements on behalf of the American people. In many ways, Google's quirky coders are still struggling to understand the ramifications of the company's global dominance. When Hwang posted a Thanksgiving doodle with fall colors one year, for example, he got endless e-mails from users in the Southern Hemisphere, who pointed out that they were in the middle of spring, in case he hadn't noticed. "We've never been able to keep everybody happy," he says.
Saturday is Flag Day. Will Google do right by America and stand up for Old Glory? Hwang won't say. "The randomness is very important to us," he says. "Otherwise it wouldn't be any fun." You can be sure the right will be watching.