Friday, January 14, 2011

The "Google Sucks" Meme

You may have noticed a meme doing the rounds lately, gracing the front pages of many of the most popular technology blogs. The gist of this meme is that Google is sucking hard: their new products are dropping like flies and even Google Search is returning worse results than ever.

I find this meme particularly objectionable since I'm an admitted Google fanboy. It's bad enough when people point out Google's failings, but when they attack Google using arguments based on speculation, ignorance and hyperbole, that pisses me off a bit. Having read one too many of these ill-informed diatribes, I feel compelled to put out a response.

Nothing I'm about to say is new, and you can find all these arguments articulated far better by Jeff Jarvis (author of What Would Google Do?) in the last few episodes of the This Week in Google podcast.

Let's look at the claims.

Google's New Products are Failing

The most oft-cited examples of this are Google Wave, Google Buzz, Google TV and the Nexus One. Let's look at each one.

Google Wave has failed as a product. It's true. Few people are more disappointed about that than I am, and I pray to the Gods of Google all the time in the hopes they'll reconsider. That said, Wave was a very ambitious project that introduced a raft of new technologies in one glorious package. All that novelty came with a pretty steep learning curve, which was intimidating to new users. Wave didn't pick up as many users as Big G wanted, so they decided to pull the plug.

But Wave isn't dead. For starters, it's still up and running. I, and many other users, still use it on a daily basis, and will continue to do so until the day Google switches it off. Secondly, Wave's new technologies are being adapted for use in Google's many other products, most notably Google Docs and Google Shared Spaces. Thirdly, the Wave project itself has been handed over to Apache, who will be releasing their own scaled-down, open-source version of Wave in the near future. So while Wave may not have met everyone's wildest hopes, it's far from dead, and isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Google Buzz hasn't failed. It's still up and running, and has a dedicated, if small, user-base. To date Google has made no statements about any intent to discontinue the Buzz service. There was a considerable amount of controversy surrounding Buzz's release, which has marred it somewhat from the start. But Google has acknowledged that the way they rolled Buzz out was a deviation from their standard procedures. This was a calculated risk, and one that backfired a bit, but nobody can fault Google's intent to continue their high pace of innovation, and empirically testing their own prior assumptions by deviating from their own norms from time to time.

Google TV is brand new. The first Google TV devices were only released a few months ago. Although they met with some pretty poor reviews, it's not that hard to think back as far as the first Android smartphone: the G1. The G1 also received some scathing criticism. Only a couple of years later, Android is out-selling Apple in the US smartphone market. Given that precedent, I reckon it would be a mistake to count Google TV out just yet.

The Nexus One didn't fail. It sold pretty well, actually. It was discontinued due to Google's intent to release its successor, the Nexus S, not due to poor sales. What did fail was Google's experiment in smartphone distribution. Google set up a way of buying a Nexus One on contract without going through the cellular service provider. That didn't work out, but it was worth a shot.

Given the sheer volume of new products Google releases every year, it's a statistical certainty that a  proportion of them won't meet expectations, and some might fail altogether. It happens. What makes Google awesome is that they learn from their mistakes and keep rolling out new and better products all the time. Only a small-minded, headline-focussed person (like most tech journalists, actually) would conclude that a few floundered projects equate to a downturn in awesomeness.

Google Search Sucks

The problem with this argument is that it seems entirely based on anecdotes.

Remember kids: the plural of "anecdote" is not "data".

How does one measure the quality of search results? Relevance, right? One would hope that the most relevant result to what you're looking for would automatically be the first one on the list, right? How could Google know what the most relevant result be? Is Google psychic?

No. Google is not psychic. Google's search results are determined algorithmically, and Google's algorithm is their intellectual property. We, as users, have no visibility into it. Trying to make assumptions about Google's search algorithm by looking at search results is a bit like trying to predict the weather by looking up. Sure, you might be able to draw some broad, fairly reliable conclusions, but you'll never be able to make precise predictions.

Google's search algorithm (which includes, but is not limited to PageRank) isn't cast in stone either. There is a dedicated team of engineers at the Googleplex whose job it is to examine, refine and tweak that algorithm. When they come across a dodgy search result (which they do every day) they try to fix the algorithm to make it better. Google Search, like most Google products, is a perpetual work-in-progress.

But since relevance is a largely subjective concept, deriving actual data on the matter is difficult. There is one alternative to anecdote we can use though: a blind trial. If you're so convinced that Google Search is falling behind its competitors, I invite you to put that assertion to the test: Blind Search is a tool that compares the results of Google, Bing and Yahoo with all the branding and ads removed, allowing the results to speak for themselves. Do a random sample of a few searches (say ten or twenty diverse searches) and record the results. I predict that Google's results will be the best at least 50% of the time.

Google's Real Problems

The "Google Sucks" meme has a few more arguments that pop up in various incarnations, but the two I've dealt with here seem to be the biggest. I may decide to address the others in a future post.

What I want to be careful about here is creating the impression that Google is perfect. It's not. (Oh Googly master, please do not strike me down! Forgive me for this blasphemy!)

One particularly troubling issue is the Google/Verizon net neutrality controversy. I don't pretend to understand it all, but if it is what I think it is, it's both out of character for Google and worrying.

Another is Google's delay in rolling out international services. For example: Google's Android Market uses Google Checkout for billing purchases of Android apps. Google Checkout works in South Africa (I use it to renew the subscriptions for my various Google Apps domains), but for some reason South African Android users aren't allowed to purchase apps through the Market. No explanation is offered and no timeline given for solving the problem, which is a pain in the battery cover. There are plenty of other examples of this sort of thing: Google Books for Android, Google Voice, Google Earth for Android and so on... services that are inexplicably unavailable to non-US users.

Another gripe of mine is the fragmentation of features across different clients: Picasa Web and the Picasa desktop client are vastly different, as are Google Maps (web), Google Maps for Mobile and Google Earth (desktop)... and don't get me started on all the different Google Talk clients, no two of which have the same feature-set.

My point is there's plenty to criticise about Google. And that's good, because Google has a track record of listening to and acting on criticism. But if we're going to start attacking Google, let's get our facts straight first, okay? There's no use reading a bunch of inflamed and sensationalist headlines and then using that as a basis for an opinion... all you're doing then is making yourself look like a blithering idiot.

(Here's a little further reading on why Google is still awesome.)