Google’s Achilles’ Heel

A day rarely passes when somebody doesn’t send me a note asking about some Google-related issue. These are usually very specific cases — people requesting help for some particular Google product or often about account-related issues. Sometimes I can offer advice or other assistance, sometimes I can’t. Occasionally in the process I get pulled into deeper philosophical discussions regarding Google.

That’s what happened a few days ago when I was asked the straightforward question: “What is Google’s biggest problem?”

My correspondent apparently was expecting me to reply with a comment about some class of technical issues, or perhaps something about a security or privacy matter. So he was quite surprised when I immediately suggested that Google’s biggest problem has nothing per se to do with any of those areas at all.

Google’s technology is superb. Their privacy and security regimes are first-rate and world class. The teams that keep all those systems going are excellent, and I’ve never met a Googler that I didn’t like (well … hardly ever). It’s widely known that I take issue with various aspects of Google’s user support structure and user interface designs, but these are subject to improvement in relatively straightforward ways.

No, Google’s biggest problem isn’t in any of these areas.

Ironically, while Google has grown and improved in so many ways since its founding some 18 years ago, the big problem today remains essentially the same as it did at the beginning.

To use the vernacular, Google’s public relations — their external communications — can seriously suck.

That is not to suggest that the individuals working Google PR aren’t great people. The problem with Google PR is — in my opinion — a structural, cultural dilemma, of the sort that can be extremely difficult for any firm to significantly alter.

This is a dangerous state of affairs, both for Google and its users. Effective external communications ultimately impact virtually every aspect of how individuals, politicians, and governments view Google services and Google itself more broadly. In an increasingly toxic political environment around the world, Google’s institutional tendency —  toward minimal communications in so many contexts — creates an ideal growth medium for Google adversaries and haters to fill the perceived information vacuum with conspiracy theories and false propaganda.

For example, I recently posted Quick Tutorial: Deleting Your Data Using Google’s “My Activity” — which ended up appearing in a variety of high readership venues. Immediately I started seeing comments and receiving emails questioning how I could possibly know that Google was telling the truth about data actually being deleted, in many cases accompanied by a long tirade of imagined grievances against Google. “How can you trust Google?” they ask.

As it happens I do trust Google, and thanks to my period of consulting to them several years ago, I know how these procedures actually operate and I know that Google is being accurate and truthful. But beyond that general statement all I can say is “Trust me on this!”

And therein lies the heart of the dilemma. Only Google can speak for Google, and Google’s public preference for generalities and vagueness on many policy and technical matters is all too often much deeper than necessary prudence and concerns about “Streisand Effect” blowbacks would reasonably dictate.

Google’s external communications problem is indeed their “Achilles’ Heel” — a crucial quandary that if left unchanged will increasingly create the opportunity for damage to Google and its users, particularly at this time when misinformation, government censorship, and other political firestorms are burning widening paths around the globe.

Institutionally entrenched communications patterns cannot reasonably be changed overnight, and a great deal of business information is both fully appropriate and necessary to keep confidential.

But in the case of Google, even a bit more transparency in external communications could do wonders, by permitting the outside world to better understand and appreciate the hard work and diligence that makes Google so worthy of trust — and by leaving the Google haters and their lying propaganda in the dust.