March 28, 2012

"Frustrated": The Results of My "Google Issues and Problems Survey"

Last Saturday, as a followup to Why Google Needs an Ombudsman - Now More Than Ever, I posted my Google Issues and Problems Survey.

Well over 1000 submissions have already been received, and after scanning through these rapidly, the trends are already clear enough to discuss some of the findings (in fact, the pattern of replies was already pretty obvious within the first 24 hours).

First, a few important provisos. This was what's known as a "self-selected" survey. This means that only people sufficiently motivated to participate chose to do so -- there was no "reaching out" to the population at large. This has the effect that results cannot be viewed as being suitable for accurate statistical generalization beyond the set of respondents themselves.

Also, by its very nature -- "issues and problems" -- this survey would not be expected to capture the opinions of people who do not have significant Google-related problems or issues to report.

Finally, the open-ended nature of the survey questions resulted in many people submitting what amounted to detailed essays discussing their concerns, often co-mingling various of the survey questions into combined answers. This has made quantitative analysis of those answers problematic -- so I'll be concentrating on a more qualitative discussion here.

Around 22% of the submissions involved privacy-related concerns of one sort or another. Of these, it appears that around 73% of the described issues were based on misunderstandings of actual Google privacy policies (including related confusion seeded by media articles and users misinterpreting actual Google policies).

In many cases users claimed they had attempted to obtain clarification of their concerns from Google directly without receiving substantive replies, and/or had attempted to obtain information from Google Help Forums -- but received no answers, inadequate answers, or conflicting answers from Forum participants. Usually no official responses were forthcoming, according to these submissions.

Of the 27% of privacy-related concerns that did not appear to relate to misunderstandings or misinterpretation of Google policies, a variety of issues were reported. These ranged from topics associated with search results, to Gmail issues, and a notable number of people expressing consternation about specific data in Google Maps, Street View, and/or Google Earth.

These map-related concerns usually involved either claims of inaccurate data being displayed, or accusations that Google had ignored repeated requests to remove particular Street View imagery and the like.

Many of these submissions were from persons who appeared to be very upset with (what they felt to be) potentially serious privacy-related issues, who recounted in extremely lengthy detail the history of their attempts to contact Google, and receiving no response, or non-substantive "form letters" with no appeal or "escalation" mechanisms noted, and so on. Some mentioned trying to call or even visit Google in desperation to reach someone for help.

The 78% of submissions that did not primarily involve privacy turned out to be somewhat similar to the privacy-related concerns in significant aspects. There was a roughly 55/45 split between reports that appeared to be based on misinterpretations or misunderstandings, vs. other issues.

While there were concerns and problems noted related to Maps and such in this latter category as well, there many more issues raised about Gmail (especially sudden mass loss of email) and Google Voice. Submissions like these tended to be quite boisterous regarding the importance of email and voicemail, and frustration over the inability to reach anyone at Google to provide useful assistance.

A particular Google Voice aspect that frequently was mentioned was problems related to Sprint/Google voice integration, with users claiming Sprint had told them to contact Google for help, and then being unable to obtain useful assistance from the Google side. Various of these users said they had simply given up.

One case I looked at in more detail involved someone who said he had been trying for a long period to fix a Google Search result problem that he said was very disruptive to his business, but he could find nobody at Google directly or in Google Help forums who could or would assist. The search results in question did seem very odd at first glance, but it took me only about 10 minutes of digging to determine that his problem was almost certainly DNS -- not specifically Google -- related. If someone had helped him with this early on, he wouldn't have spent a long period in public forums condemning Google.

There were also a variety of issues raised about various paid Google ad services and other fee-based Google services, mostly too detailed to go into here right now. Numerous of these involved search and ad ranking controversies of various sorts -- many of which I would classify as misunderstandings.

In a number of instances, business owners reported that they had provided credit card information to Google to "claim" their business addresses and a designated amount of free Google advertising, had never used the advertising, but still found Google-related charges on their credit cards that they had been unable to reach anyone at Google to remove. I asked one of these persons why -- if all else had failed -- they had not filed a dispute with their credit card company or bank? He replied that he saw no point since "there's no way I'm going to win against Google."

In both the privacy and non-privacy categories, the twin issues of not actually understanding Google policies or services, and/or overwhelming frustration with trying to get substantive assistance for Google-related problems, came up again and again.

Customers of paid Google services seemed relatively more satisfied with their support options, but many of these users claimed that they used both free and paid Google services, and found even the paid support to still be seriously lacking at this time across the universe of Google-related issues.

A very significant number of respondents (including those currently using free Google services exclusively) specifically noted that they'd be willing to pay (new) reasonable fees (either monthly or per-incident) to get meaningful assistance when there are problems, as exemplified by this quote from a survey participant who explicitly granted me permission to publish his comments when he sent in his form:

"... It's a sign of what I think is a greater problem with Google: there is absolutely no way to get support for ANY issue, policy or technical, for most of Google's services. For all my issues, I'd be willing to pay a small monthly fee (or even a one-time "trouble" fee) if there was a way to get the issue resolved."

That's probably enough of a survey overview for now. Once again, I want to emphasize what I said at the beginning of this posting. This was a self-selected survey, that by definition only encompasses users with problems or issues that they chose to report. Any generalizations to a larger universe of Google users would be entirely inappropriate.

However, it does seem reasonable to note the common threads that run through these submissions. It is certainly the case that it's a matter of major concern when significant numbers of users and customers are misunderstanding your services or policies, or are having longstanding problems that in many cases could have actually been easily understood or resolved under the appropriate information and/or support structures.

It is from this category of "lost users" -- who usually could have been helped very early on -- from which often come negative stories to friends and business colleagues, and complaints that trigger misleading, sensationalistic media reports, angry letters to politicians, and other unnecessary damaging impacts that in most cases could have been relatively easily avoided.

The single factor that stands out above all others in the survey results is that -- novice or expert, confused or "right on the mark" -- users abhor the frustrating feeling that they are being essentially ignored when they have issues or problems related to services that they use regularly and have come to depend upon.

Solving this problem isn't simple, and isn't without costs. But the benefits for everyone concerned would seem enormously important in the long run.


Posted by Lauren at March 28, 2012 09:02 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein