February 05, 2011

Using Google to Harass -- and the Continuing Google Customer Support Gap

Greetings. This particular story is not the most egregious case of a Google-related problem I've seen, nor am I mentioning it simply because it is now getting a great deal of publicity. But it is a good example of a class of Google-related issues that arrive at my inbox virtually ever single day.

Today we have an upset girlfriend who ultimately leveraged Google Images to post copies of her ex-boyfriend's (apparently copyrighted) professional headshot image, emblazoned with an array of harassing and embarrassing labels.

This may sound a bit humorous -- and some of the press have been sort of playing it that way, but cases of purposely using Google Search results to slander and harass, sometimes in ways that could be extremely dangerous, even potentially life threatening, are much more common than you might imagine -- people contact me routinely with such stories begging for help getting such results removed.

In the current case of the revengeful girlfriend, we see a typical failed attempt to deal with the situation directly with Google:

"My minor son's ex-girlfriend took a copyrighted picture of him (we own copyright) and uploaded it more than 60 times to a website. On each image she wrote slanderous, defamatory and pornographic captions. The webmaster of the site states he removed the images 6 weeks ago, but Google Search still shows all the images. My son is so stressed out and embarrassed and we've done everything we can to get images off of Google including URL removal tool, a letter to Google Legal with all the URLs because of copyright infringement, and nothing has worked!"

The point here right now isn't whether or not it is actually Google's responsibility to remove indexed, cached, or otherwise displayed links or images based at other sites. That's a complex area without simple solutions (and if anyone tries to claim that this is a simple matter, they are either misleading you or ignorant regarding the subject).

But the inability of persons with issues like these to even receive a usefully substantive response in any manner from Google is itself extremely routine, and a matter of continuing concern.

One might ask, why do people come to me with these issues? Regular readers can guess, and a Google Search these days for:

    google ombudsman

will quickly reveal the reason -- my "Google Ombudsman" essays. Folks with Google-related issues start searching around for someone to ask about these problems, and -- yep -- they find my various related postings.

It is distressing to receive pleading messages from people complaining that they can't get Google to respond to them in any way, and begging me for help. Sometimes I can point them to existing Web resources and techniques that will be of use. Occasionally I can get them some help through private channels. But most of the time I'm impotent to assist in their situations. Not only does that do them no good at all, it also frankly makes me feel awful.

As I've said many times before, I understand Google's concerns about scaling when it comes to dealing with user concerns -- especially when so many Google services are provided without charge. But Google is a big, growing, successful firm, with some of the sharpest minds on the planet within its fold. There are a variety of ways that an appropriate Google Ombudsman or some other "problem resolution" hierarchy -- with appropriate triaging and escalation of problems -- could be made to work effectively and economically. Other firms of every possible size, scope, and type have managed to do this successfully.

I have enormous respect for Google as a firm, and in particular for its people. But while the complexity of the issues is a given, it is embarrassing that an organization with the skills and influence of Google continues to avoid dealing with this area in an effective manner.

Google, you've worked engineering miracles toward organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible and useful -- as per your mission statement. The time is ripe for you to bite the bullet and apply a fraction of that expertise toward dealing with your continuing customer support chasm.

Do this properly, and you'll be an even greater company as a result.

That fact at least, is really very simple.


Posted by Lauren at February 5, 2011 10:52 AM | Permalink
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