January 28, 2009

The Time is Right to Kill Google (If They Don’t Kill Themselves First)

Guest Post By Matt Dickman of Techno//Marketer (FriendFeed/Twitter)

In your opinion, what is Google’s differentiator as a company? Can you remember when you switched from Yahoo! to the new, fresh upstart Google? For me, it was seamless. One day I woke up and was just using it. I do, however, remember why I started using it. Google put users at the center of their business. They added value to the search experience by cleaning up the interface and presenting information in a clean, concise manner. They learned early that search was a replacement for the directory-based engine that Yahoo (still) hangs on to, not a supplement.

For the past two years I have written a blog post about the ways that Google attaches itself to my life on a daily basis (here is last year’s version). I’ve welcomed this life-integration with the company because I felt they were adding value. They weren’t doing any evil.

Lately, however I’ve felt a disturbance in the force. I still use all of the same Google products that I mentioned in the post, but something had changed. The company that innovated search by focusing on the user has lost its focus on the user. Here are two examples that you may, or may not, have noticed and I welcome your feedback.

First, Friend Connect. *sigh* This really was my tipping point with Google. (You’ll notice there are common threads between this example and the next one.) Back in mid-December I came across a blog post on this new Google platform extension. On the surface, I liked the idea. Everyone with a Google profile (most of us) could join the site and engage with each other through what Google calls “social gadgets”. My plan was to add ratings at the end of each post, however I ran (and continue to run) into a problem.

The initial set up was cake. I added the community widget to the side of my blog and waited for people to join.

My initial experience with that module was poor. The invite function wouldn’t let me add new users. Actually, I just checked and it still won’t. Worse yet when I tried to invite my friends and the page gave me the error, something weird happened. All of my Gmail chat contacts disappeared. My Google reader contacts as well. Not cool. I’ve been rebuilding this over time, but some people I have been permanently severed from. To add fuel to the fire, when I try to add the social widget to the post, I get the image below where the widget should be. I have everything set up right, it just doesn’t work.

You would think that, upon launching a new platform extension, Google would be all over the support site. Not the case. From when I submitted my post to the next Google rep to answer any questions was about three weeks (and they didn’t answer my question).

Scenario #2, FeedBurner. I think the entire blogosphere has a love/hate relationship with this service. From the time Google acquired the Chicago company until now it has been a rollercoaster. FeedBurner started out with a narrow focus and they executed well. Google acquired them to extend their advertising/analytics offering. However, subscriber stats would often fluctuate wildly, dropping to zero on some days, bouncing back if you were lucky. Google always claimed that they were “working on it”, but I didn’t believe it until a while back when I saw that they were transitioning to the Google platform.

In theory, this is a good thing. More scale, more stability, more happy people. Wrong. The transition was not explained well and I saw a wave of panic slowly crushing the blogosphere. A couple of us took the plunge and made the move (I even recorded a video to help people understand the process). In the process, my subscribers dropped by half. No explanation. Hundreds of posts to the support forum and no replies from Google. My stats did bounce back, but the service’s reputation is shaky now. People use this as a key metric, companies track it and people get paid based on it. Sadly there is no alternative (yet).

Google has lost sight of the user. They have neglected us for too long, concentrating instead on advertising. I get that it is their lifeblood, but what good is an ad that nobody sees because you alienate your community. I think that a company that attacks with the right mission and focus on users could make a dent in Google’s armor. Killer customer service powered by social platforms could allow a new set of players to emerge.

I would love to get your take on this. Have you seen the same trend? What would you do if you were Google to stand up and put your foot down?

Read more by Matt Dickman at Techno//Marketer.