What's behind Google's Charles Dickens doodle?

One of England's most celebrated authors was born 200 years ago today. Google is commemorating Charles Dickens with a little (Oliver) Twist. There's a doodle, as would be expected, but behind it links to free ebooks from the search and information giant's own bookstore. Eh, what's up with that? Is it favoritism?

That's a question I've heard often asked recently about Google, as the amount of cross-product, cross-service integration increases. The practice jumped quite dramatically after Larry Page returned as Google CEO in April 2011, and it's not abating. Favoritism should be a concern, given that impartiality -- and with it trust -- is crucial to Google's core product (search) and profit center (search ads and keywords). What the Dickens is going on here?

Over at Search Engine Watch, Jonathan Allen claims this is the "first time that [Google] has used their logo change to specifically promote a product or service". I dunno about that; seems to me a matter of definition. It's customary for Google doodles to link somewhere, providing more information about the topic, event or person represented. That's not new. Something else: Google isn't selling anything here, but offering easy access to books that are available in the public domain. That said, they are from Google Books.

Is that favoritism? It's true that Google now has an ebookstore, but these links go to Google's older service of scanned, public domain print titles. The search service predates the recent rush, led by Amazon, to ebook sales and distribution. "Oliver Twist" is example. However, there is a link to get a free ebook of Dickens' titles. Google presents several options for obtaining the book. Clicking "EPUB" downloads "OLiver Twist" to your computer. Clicking "PDF" opens the ebook in Google Docs in Chrome and downloads it in other browsers.

The other options are a Google affair, using the search provider's ebook service to make delivery -- not that distribution is restrictive, given the broad number of devices supported. Google also provides links to popular online stores, Amazon among them, for purchasing Dickens' titles in print.

I don't see real favoritism here but Google doing what it's suppose to -- get information to people quickly and in a manner consistent with past presentation. The doodle-linked Google Books pages are similar to others, for example, Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn".

If anything, the Dickens links promote the openness of information and the spirit of public domain. You can buy Dickens' titles from Google's ebook service ("Oliver Twist" for $4.99 is example). But those titles aren't the ones highly promoted in the links page from the doodle. Free is the key word here.

Unquestionably, Google Books receives some visible promotion from the doodle linkage. But the context is more about Google providing quick and easy access to useful information (its core service) and promoting the reading of one of the best Western writers of the last two centuries and one of the smartest men in recorded history (Dickens' IQ was 180-185, depending on source).

That said, Google undeniably has dramatically increased cross-service integration, particularly since the Google+ limited launch last summer. Just look at how much the Google search page has changed -- the company's other services are far more visible. There is heated controversy about some of the integration, such as "Search Plus Your World". The question to ask, once again: Is it favoritism? Or is Google improving the quality of search and ancillary services by connecting them together? I see the answers more case by case and in this instance: "No". My reaction would be different if Google used the doodle to sell Dickens' novels from its own ebookstore.

By the way, overnight, Ariel Levine, Google ebooks associate, explains how the doodle was created. It's a fun short-read for that train or bus ride home from the office.

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