“Google Needs an Ombudsman” Posts from 2009 — Still Relevant Today

Originally posted February 27 and 28, 2009:
Google’s “Failure to Communicate” vs. User Support
Google Ombudsman (Part II)

Greetings. There’s been a lot of buzz around the Net recently about Google Gmail outages, and this has brought back to the surface a longstanding concern about the public’s ability (or lack thereof) to communicate effectively with Google itself about problems and issues with Google services.

I’ll note right here that Google usually does provide a high level of customer support for users of their paid services. And I would assert that there’s nothing wrong with Google providing differing support levels to paying customers vs. users of their many free services.

But without a doubt, far and away, the biggest Google-related issue that people bring to me is a perceived inability to effectively communicate with Google when they have problems with free Google services — which people do now depend on in many ways, of course. These problems can range from minor to quite serious, sometimes with significant ongoing impacts, and the usual complaint is that they get no response from submissions to reporting forms or e-mailed concerns.

On numerous occasions, when people bring particular Google problems to my attention, I have passed along (when I deemed it appropriate) some of these specific problems to my own contacts at Google, and they’ve always been dealt with promptly from that point forward. But this procedure can’t help everyone with such Google-related issues, of course.

I have long advocated (both privately to Google and publicly) that Google establish some sort of public Ombudsman (likely a relatively small team) devoted specifically to help interface with the public regarding user problems — a role that requires a skillful combination of technical ability, public relations, and “triage” skills. Most large firms that interact continually with the public have teams of this sort in one form or another, often under the label “Ombudsman” (or sometimes “Office of the President”).

The unofficial response I’ve gotten from Google regarding this concept has been an expression of understanding but a definite concern about how such an effort would scale given Google’s user base.

I would never claim that doing this properly is a trivial task — far from it. But given both the horizontal and vertical scope of Google services, and the extent to which vast numbers of persons now depend on these services in their everyday personal and business lives, I would again urge Google to consider moving forward along these lines.


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Greetings. In Google’s “Failure to Communicate” vs. User Support, I renewed my long-standing call for an Ombudsman “team” or equivalent communications mechanism for Google.

Subsequent reactions suggest that some readers may not be fully familiar with the Ombudsman concept, at least in the way that I use the term.

An Ombudsman is not the same thing as “customer support” per se. I am not advocating a vast new Google customer service apparatus for users of their free services. Ombudsmen (Ombudswomen? Let’s skip the politically correct linguistics for now …) aren’t who you go to when search results are slow or you can’t log in to Gmail for two hours. These sorts of generally purely technical issues are the vast majority of the time suitable for handling within the normal context of existing online reporting forms and the like. (I inadvertently may have caused some confusion on this point by introducing my previous piece with a mention of Gmail problems — but that was only meant in the sense that those problems triggered broader discussions, not a specific example of an issue appropriate for escalation to an Ombudsman.)

But there’s a whole different class of largely non-technical (or more accurately, mixed-modality) issues where Google users appear to routinely feel frustrated and impotent to deal with what they feel are very disturbing situations.

Many of these relate to perceived defamations, demeaning falsehoods, systemic attacks, and other similar concerns that some persons feel are present in various Google service data (search results, Google Groups postings, Google-hosted blog postings, YouTube, and so on).

By the time some of these people write to me, they’re apparently in tears over the situations, wondering if they should spend their paltry savings on lawyers, and generally very distraught. Their biggest immediate complaints? They don’t know who to contact at Google, or their attempts at contact via online forms and e-mail have yielded nothing but automatic replies (if that).

And herein resides the crux of the matter. I am a very public advocate of open information, and a strong opponent of censorship. I won’t litter this posting with all of the relevant links. I have however expressed concerns about the tendency of false information to reside forever in search results without mechanisms for counterbalancing arguments to be seen. In 2007 I discussed this in Search Engine Dispute Notifications: Request For Comments and subsequent postings. This is an exceedingly complex topic, with no simple solutions.

In general, my experience has been that many or most of the concerns that people bring forth in these regards are, all aspects of the situation considered fairly, not necessarily suitable for the kinds of relief that the persons involved are seeking. That is, the level of harm claimed often seems insufficient, vs. free speech and the associated rights of other parties.

However, there are dramatic, and not terribly infrequent exceptions that appear significantly egregious and serious. And when these folks can’t get a substantive reply from Google (and can’t afford a lawyer to go after the parties who actually have posted or otherwise control the information that Google is indexing or hosting) these aggrieved persons tend to be up you-know-what creek.

If you have a DMCA concern, Google will normally react to it promptly. But when the DMCA is not involved, trying to get a real response from Google about the sorts of potentially serious concerns discussed above — unless you have contacts that most people don’t have — can often seem impossible.

Google generally takes the position — a position that I basically support — that since they don’t create most content, the responsibility for the content is with the actual creator, the hosting Web sites, and so on. But Google makes their living by providing global access to those materials, and cannot be reasonably viewed as being wholly separated from associated impacts and concerns.

At the very least, even if requests for deletions, alterations, or other relief are unconvincing or rejected for any number of quite valid reasons, the persons who bring forth these concerns should not be effectively ignored. They deserve to at least get a substantive response, some sort of hearing, more than a form-letter automated reply about why their particular plea is being rejected. This principle remains true irrespective of the ultimate merits or disposition of the particular case.

And this is where the role of a Google Ombudsman could be so important — not only in terms of appropriately responding to these sorts of cases, but also to help head off the possibility of blowback via draconian regulatory or legislative actions that might cut deeply into Google’s (and their competitors) business models — a nightmare scenario that I for one don’t want to see occur.

But I do fear that unless Google moves assertively toward providing better communications channels with their users for significant issues — beyond form responses and postings in the official Google blogs, there are forces that would just love to see Google seriously damaged who will find ways to leverage these sorts of issues toward that end — evidence of this sort of positioning by some well-heeled Google haters is already visible.

Ombudsmen are all about communication. For any large firm that is constantly dealing with the public, especially one operating on the scope of Google, it’s almost impossible to have too much communication when it comes to important problems and related issues. On the other hand, too little communications, or the sense that concerned persons are being ignored, can be a penny-wise but pound-foolish course with negative consequences that could have been — even if not easily avoided– at least avoided with a degree of serious effort.