Why Google Is Terrified of Its Users

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Have you ever seen the “10 Things” philosophy page at Google? It’s uplifting. It’s sweet. And in significant respects, it’s as dead as the dodo:

https://www.google.com/about/philosophy.html

Even if it didn’t say so, you’d know that this page has been around at Google for a long, long time, because it still speaks of “doing one thing really, really well” and calls Gmail and Maps “new” products.

By no means is everything on that page now inoperative, but it’s difficult for some sections not to remind one of the classic film “Citizen Kane” where Charles Foster Kane himself rips his own, now “antique” Declaration of Principles to shreds.

Point number one on that nostalgic Google page is of special note: “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”

I would argue that when those words were first written many years ago, Google’s users — and the entire Internet world — were very different from today. By and large, the percentage of non-techies in Google’s user community was much smaller. You didn’t have so many busy non-technical persons, older people, and others for whom technology was not a 24/7 “lifestyle” but who were still very dependent on your services.

And of course, Google’s range of services was much narrower then, and Google services were not such a massive part of so many people’s lives around the world as those services are today.

Google has traditionally been — and still to a significant extent is — something of a “black box” to most users.  Unless you’ve been on the inside, many of its actions seem mysterious and inscrutable. Even being on the inside doesn’t necessarily free one completely of those observations.

While there have been some improvements in some respects, especially in regard to Google’s paid services, overall Google still seems to have something of an “us vs. them” attitude — keep the users at arm’s length — when it comes to the majority of their users, a tendency to wall users off in significant respects. 

Granted, when you have as many users as Google, you can’t provide “white-glove” personalized service to all of them.

But even within the practical range of what could be done to better serve users overall, one senses that Google decreasingly cares about you unless you’re a genuine paying customer, and even then only to the minimal extent required. 

Part of this is likely driven by quite realistic fears of potentially draconian actions by pandering politicians in governments around the planet, and the declining value of traditional online advertising models.

But Google’s at best lackadaisical attitude toward so many of its users is still impossible to justify. Just to note two recent examples that I’ve discussed, why would Google not choose to proactively help Chromecast users whose devices might be hijacked, even if the underlying fault wasn’t actually Google’s? And how can Google justify the sudden and total abandonment of loyal Google+ users who have spent many years building close communities, without even bothering to provide any tools to help those users stay in touch with each other after Google pulls the plug? 

It’s a matter of priorities. And at Google, only a limited number of particular users tend to be a priority.

It goes further of course. Google’s institutional fear of the “Streisand Effect” — reluctance to even mention a problem to avoid risking drawing any attention to it — rises essentially to the level of neurosis.

Google’s continual refusal to give users a truly representative “place at the deliberation table”  through user advocates, or the means to escalate serious dilemmas through ombudspersons or similar roles, are ever more glaring as related issues continue to erupt into public notice, often with significantly negative PR impacts, making Google ever more vulnerable to the whims of opportunistic regulators and politicians.

Some years ago when I was consulting to Google, I was in the office of a significantly high ranking executive at their Mountain View headquarters (one clue to knowing if someone is a significant executive at Google — they have their own office). I was pitching my concepts for roles like ombudspersons, and he was pushing back. Finally, he asked me, “Are you volunteering?”

I thought about it for a few seconds and answered no. A role like that without the actual support of the company would be useless, and it seemed obvious from my meetings that the necessary support for such roles within the company did not exist.

In retrospect, even though I’ve always assumed that his question was really only meant rhetorically, I still wonder if I should have “called his bluff” so to speak and answered in the affirmative. It probably wouldn’t have mattered, but it was an interesting moment.

One way or another, the political “powers that be” today have the long knives out for Google and other Internet-based firms. And I for one don’t want to see Google go the way of DEC and Bell Labs and the long list of other firms that once seemed invincible but now either no longer exist or are mere shadows of their former once-great selves.

Given current trends, I’m unsure if Google — even given the will to do so — can turn this around fast enough to avoid the destructive, toxic, political freight trains headed toward it. Many of my readers frequently suggest to me that even that sentiment is overly optimistic.

We shall see.

–Lauren–