March 22, 2012

Why Google Needs an Ombudsman - Now More Than Ever

Blog Update (March 28, 2012): "Frustrated": The Results of My "Google Issues and Problems Survey"

Blog Update (March 24, 2012): Google Issues and Problems Survey

I knew immediately this morning that I was facing what I call a "Did you see this?" day. That's what I call the effect of checking my inbox when I get up, and seeing a long series of messages with subject lines blaring variations on "did you see this?" - "you have to read this!" - "hey lauren, what do you have to say about this?" - and so on.

In today's case, the object of so much sender "affection" was a Gizmodo article titled The Case Against Google, that might charitably be described as a quite extensive "overview" of complaints regarding recent Google practices.

As might be expected in such an piece, the author chose to illuminate his points in pretty much the worst possible light.

I've previously discussed my views regarding various issues that he describes, for example in these blog postings:

Google, Safari, and a Clamor of Cookie Confusion

Google's Privacy Policy Changes: Revolution? Evolution? Or Confusion?

A Few Thoughts on Google's "Search, plus Your World"

... and others.

And as much as I disagree with the author's interpretations on most of his points, there are two aspects of his piece with which I do agree.

First, he suggests that Google is being hammered by complaints in numbers and ways that are increasingly of concern. While I would assert that most of these complaints are exaggerated -- the results of misunderstandings, and all too often the offspring of "dirty trick" campaigns by anti-Google forces -- it is still undeniable that the pressure on Google has really ramped up lately.

He also asserts that the core product of Google is now "Google itself" -- not simply Search. He expresses "shock" at this revelation, but this evolution has actually been obvious for quite some time, nor is there anything at all nefarious about it.

The author himself notes that the kinds of services Google wants to provide (and let's face it, that most users want) cannot reasonably function in a set of isolated "silos" -- the original compartments that are the natural result of Google's adding new services gradually over a period of years.

Evolution of more integrated services not only better serves users, it permits for more easily understood unified privacy policies, data "dashboard" controls, and other useful functions.

This also helps explain why attempting head-to-head comparisons of Google+ and Facebook are essentially wrongheaded. Google+ is not actually a standalone service per se, but should be interpreted within the context of the overall Google ecosystem of which it is an increasingly key aspect.

While Google's moves creating a coordinated "Google Experience" (rather than a set of somewhat disparate and relatively compartmented applications) have brought great benefits to users, there is also a downside, as exemplified by the tone of the Gizmodo article.

A unified Google platform, especially in services application areas where Google is dominant, and particularly for persons who are not deeply versed in the details of associated technical and policy realms, can find itself portrayed as scary, even a threat -- a situation that Google's adversaries are very willing to exploit.

In my opinion, this presents a communications challenge that goes significantly beyond the scope of traditional corporate communications, which is why I've in the past invoked the "Ombudsman" concept in relation to Google, and suggested that Google could benefit significantly from such an employee.

There are various roles that an ombudsman (or ombudsman team) can productively fill, especially for corporations that need to maintain the trust of their users -- and the general public -- for the furtherance of best practices along a variety of vectors.

An ombudsman can be crucial in helping to deal appropriately and promptly with out of the ordinary user problems and complaints, that in the absence of such handling may blow out of control into breathless, damaging, and often utterly inaccurate media stampedes of dramatic (and undeserved!) condemnations. Are there decidedly nontrivial scaling issues involved in accomplishing this role effectively? Certainly. Is it possible to accomplish this economically with appropriate triage and planning? Definitely.

But particularly in the context of the unfortunately not uncommon Gizmodo article sensibilities, the ombudsman's most important function is to act as an unbiased "observer, analyst, and explainer" of issues -- often highly controversial ones -- that can arise at the interface between companies, their users, and the public at large.

This is definitely not a role for the thin-skinned. Ombudsmen are employees of their companies, but must be recognized by both their companies and the public as being honestly concerned about the interests of all involved parties, and be capable of resisting pressures to inappropriately skew any analysis.

To be effective, ombudsmen must have fairly direct access to both operational teams and high level personnel at their firms, but ombudsmen normally do not have "special powers" and cannot dictate actions to their firms, only make recommendations (typically some publicly, while others are private recommendations strictly within the firms themselves).

As you can imagine, it is not uncommon for an ombudsman to feel that they're "between a rock and a hard place" while balancing the job's complex requirements.

Yet such balance from an ombudsman can be key to helping assure that a firm's intentions and goals are not accidentally or purposely misconstrued by observers.

And though the ombudsman's role may be viewed as being somewhat thankless in various respects given the complicated interests and issues involved, and while it can frequently take something of a "leap of faith" for a firm to entrust an ombudsman in the first place, the benefits all around -- for corporate organizations and the public that depends upon them -- can be enormous.

Paradoxically, even in the most sophisticated and methodical of technological realms, often a leap of faith begins the most logical path towards the best possible tomorrow for us all.


Blog Update (March 28, 2012): "Frustrated": The Results of My "Google Issues and Problems Survey"

Blog Update (March 24, 2012): Google Issues and Problems Survey

Posted by Lauren at March 22, 2012 03:46 PM | Permalink
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