Is Google becoming evil?

Given the high standards Google set for itself with the aims of indexing the world’s information, and the mantra of ‘Don’t Be Evil’, it’s likely we hold it to higher standards than most companies. After all, in 2004, Joel Bakan described corporations in this way ‘As a psychopathic creature, the corporation can neither recognise nor act upon moral reasons to refrain from harming others. Nothing it its legal makeup limits what it can do to others in pursuit of its selfish ends, and it is compelled to cause harm when the benefits of doing so outweight the costs’.

Now whether or not Google is becoming evil, there are certainly much worse offenders around the world, but given the lofty ideals and the integral part that has played in the Google brand, any start down the slope to the activities of the traditional corporation could be damaging. You might somewhat expect it of Microsoft, or ignore it if you’re a member of the Cult of Apple, but when Google acts in ways which particularly hurt small businesses, publishers and potentially vulnerable individuals, it’s particularly jarring.

Google Logo in Building43


‘Secure search’:

The right of an individual to online privacy and security is a good thing, and difficult to argue against. The use of https by sites is a positive step and one that shouldn’t be discouraged.

But recently Google made an announcement that Google Analytics would no longer provide keyword information for users who are logged into their Google profile and using secure search. That move was done with the stated aim of privacy and currently a relatively small percentage of users are searching via the secure connection.

Two problems with that – already many people are reporting significant and growing numbers who are now hidden in terms of keyword data, and secondly, having had access to that data for years, it does not indicate in any way, shape or form who was using a specific keyword and therefore affect privacy. All I knew was that 20% of people visiting in the last month typed in ‘thewayoftheweb’ into a Google search box, regardless of whether they were secure or not, and no further information was available.

But hang on – if it really doesn’t matter to individual user privacy, could it be related to the launch of a paid Google Analytics for enterprise with a hefty price? After all, if you’re paying $150,000 for Google Analytics Premium, you’d be expecting all information.

So Google moves in a traditionally corporate way, using a freemium model to gain market share, then starting to remove features from the free version and concentrate on getting the top percentage of big users to start paying.

The people who lose out are small business and publishers, who won’t know how an increasing number of visitors are finding their site, and that number will only increase with more people staying logged into Gmail and Google+. After all, no-one can optimise for searches they don’t know are happening – although I’m not sure if the privacy still applies when I click-through on Google Adsense or Adwords advertising next to the search results, regardless of my connection.


‘Anti-social Google Reader’

There’s been a pretty big uproar regarding the redesign and loss of features which has been rolled out to Google Reader, despite the paltry week’s notice given to users. My concerns regarding the actual design are fairly minor, as it makes it slightly more difficult to use, but I can cope.

What’s difficult to reconcile is the loss of various features which are obviously and explicitly an attempt to shoehorn users into more activity on Google+, which have a number of negative effects for individuals and businesses.

  • Individuals can no longer have a basic sharing and following network within Google Reader. As opposed to the thousands of connections I had on social networks, there was a small group of around 30 or so I followed on Google Reader, simply because I was intently interested in seeing what they deemed worthy of curating and sharing on a tight subject list, without necessarily interacting with them about their holiday photos. And as with Twitter, it was asynchronous sharing – they didn’t have to know me or approve me, or figure out what I want then create a Google+ circle on that premise.  But worse is the claim that many users in more repressive countries were using Google Reader as social networks were blocked, and had connections of several thousand in many cases. That’s entirely lost now.
  • Business revenue is affected: Via RSS, and Google’s own acquisition of Feedburner, a business could display advertising in their RSS feed. In addition to losing control of sharing a full or partial RSS feed, the snippets shared to Google+ also conveniently remove any feed advertising – Google may lose their share of that revenue, but also completely control Google+ and any monetization that happens.
  • RSS is under threat: Consumer adoption of RSS has remained relatively small, but concentrated towards heavy and earl-adopting technology users. And of that group, Reader had a market share of about 70%, crushing most competitors and removing incentives to innovate in that area. If Google has decided RSS is redundant, what will happen to the popular Feedburner RSS service which powers many, many blogs RSS feeds? The analytics side of Feedburner has been pretty much permanently broken, but it still provides a simple and easy way to set up a feed which is compatible with numerous other places and services.
    In addition, for business use, it’s been possible to take the feed of Google Reader shared items, or utilise the unofficial Google Reader API to separate out tags to put onto business intranets or publish externally. Given that shared items is gone (Including my own 16,000+ articles over 5 years), what faith can you have in an unofficial API to support paying clients?


 WTF Google?

I’m certainly not against businesses making money – I’d like my own to keep earning more in the future, and my expertise is more directed towards the content and marketing side of business operations. It’s entirely possible that in such a large organisation it may just be coincidental that various changes all suggest a new self-interest which has happened just as a founder resumes control of the company and indicates more of a focus on their new social business.
I’m also enthusiastic about experimentation and change – the fact that Google Buzz and Google Wave have both been deemed failed experiments doesn’t negate the important experience and influence they may have had both within Google and externally.

But I do question whether the current focus on Google+ is causing the big G to lose some of what has made it so immensely popular and powerful. Whether that’s the influence of the success of Facebook as a walled garden which uses elements of coercion to get us to help power it in terms of advertising and brand revenue, or whether it’s just the misalignment of every non-search free product as a feeder for Google+, I can’t say.

Occupy Google+

But either way, I’m not alone in feeling unsettled by Google’s new direction, and as we’ve seen, current success doesn’t mean permanence, particularly online. Google has some security in that the integration of Gmail, Reader, Analytics, Apps for Business etc are so deep into our lives and companies that it will take a significant motivation to switch, but given the current moves from my techie friends to alternative feed readers, and the existence of established and good paid analytics alternatives, it’s not inconceivable that the move could start to happen.

And given the results of some blind search engine result testing, it appears that one of the main reasons for Google continuing to dominant search is the familiarity of the brand, rather than the results being returned in comparison to Bing – which means that losing the perception of their values may not just damage the potential success of Google+, but could also lead to a greater threat to their core search business.

Why Mark Zuckerberg is right to dismiss Facebook users

As a specialist in online communities and social media, it may seem a little strange that I would suggest Mark Zuckerberg is right to ignore the complaints of Facebook users over the recent changes to the social network, but stick with me on this one.

Mark Zuckerberg by Leafar. on Flickr (CC Licence)

Mark Zuckerberg by Leafar. on Flickr (CC Licence)

The story so far:

Facebook releases a redesign which shows more of a Friendfeed/Twitter influence. Users react badly and an app is introduced to vote on the new design. The app has over 1 million votes so far, with 94% against the new layout and 600,000 comments – Facebook has over 175 million users for context. (A suitable time to remind everyone of ‘the supermarket effect‘ when it comes to redesigns?)

Then on Friday, Gawker posted details of a memo by Mark Zuckerberg to Facebook employees, supplied by an anonymous tipster.  ‘He said something like ‘the most disruptive companies don’t listen to their customers’

Sadly, the memo hasn’t been published anywhere, so like everyone else, I’m going on the third-hand hearsay. Cnet has a reasonable summary of the split between people attacking Facebook/Zuckerberg for his apparent lack of concern about users, and those who are supporting Facebook. So far, though, only Robert Scoble appears to have addressed why Zuckerberg is right to dismiss user concerns in this instance.

So why is Mark Zuckerberg right?

There’s a difference between collaboration and co-creation (which I evangelise), and, as Scoble puts it, ‘letting the customers run our business mode’. Think of every product that has been dulled by focus groups until it fails to ignite any interest from anyone.

Zuckerberg wants to keep Facebook disruptive – which is completely correct if it will avoid the loss of interest associated with the previous big social networks – look at the current state of Friendster and  Myspace. Both are still sizeable, but when did either of them ignite any sense of passion or controversy?

Too often, a great idea gets lost in repeated meetings, discussions and trying to meet the expectations of everyone involved – now try applying the views of 175 million people to a business plan.

Leadership by Dunechaser on Flickr (CC Licence)

Leadership by Dunechaser on Flickr (CC Licence)

And it takes strong leadership to lead any project, no matter how democratic in nature – from Wikipedia to Twitter, users contribute, collaborate, create, build-on and influence – but eventually someone has to pick a strategy and run with it.

And the redesign is leading to reports of the benefits for brands and for Facebook advertising.

Meanwhile Scoble points to user data and recommendations leading to businesses. And the fact that people may claim they’re rushing to leave since the redesign, but what people say is often different to what they do, and with such a critical mass, there are a lot of strong ties to break, with no like-for-like alternative really getting any attention.

They just don’t get it:

Part of my reason for posting is an article by Frank Reed over at Marketing Pilgrim, and others like it. We shouldn’t confuse customer service with customers dictating business strategy simply by an immediate backlash – all customer input should be acknowledged, and then a decision has to be made to act on it. It’s the same confusion that portrays Open Source as impossible to make money from, or social media as the only place to bother marketing in.

(And for the record, I don’t like the new design, I’m not going to leave over it, and I probably use Facebook 1-2 times a day for pleasure and 3-4 times a day for work, preferring Twitter and Friendfeed).

Santa’s sleigh redesigned by top car designers…

I had to blow the trumpet of one of the magazines I work with for Bauer Media.

Car Magazine decided to lighten the mood a bit for Christmas by asking car firms if they’d have a go at updating Santa’s transport – and Nissan, Ford, Rolls Royce and Bentley all responded… So Car have made the awesome designs available as E-Cards…

The Bentley approach to updating Santas Sleigh!

The Bentley approach to updating Santa's Sleigh!

Fords take on Santa Claus transportation

Ford's take on Santa Claus transportation

I’ll add previews of the other two when WordPress has stopped playing up!

‘The Supermarket effect’, and how to minimise it…

I’ve coined the term ‘the supermarket effect’ in conversation and in passing, and never really publicly defined it. So for future reference:

The Supermarket Effect: The initial response to a new layout to a website, which echoes your first reaction to a supermarket changing it’s layout; ‘Oh, for crying out loud, where have they put the sodding milk’. Despite the fact that the change may actually be an improvement.

Chinese supermarket by gab on Flickr (CC Licence)

Chinese supermarket by gab on Flickr (CC Licence)

Even after a decade of making, changing, relaunching and tweaking websites, I’m as guilty of letting myself have the same reaction occasionally, before taking a deep breathe and evaluating what the changes actually mean.

And that effect can be devastating when you’re just launched a design you (or your team) worked on for days or weeks, and the first responses from users is to complain about every change. But if you understand that a percentage of shock is inevitable, you can start to seperate the valid and constructive comments from those of surprise – just remember that if they’re regular users of the site, it’s akin to walking into your local pub, or you living room, and finding someone has moved everything.

But there are ways you can minimise ‘the supermarket effect’.

  • Warn users that change is coming. Give them time to prepare themselves.
  • Explain in detail to key users what the changes will be, why they are being made, and give them an advanced preview. Get them onside, and they will evangelise the changes on a personal level which you wouldn’t reach as quickly.
  • Use A/B testing to reveal the changes to a small group and evaluate which changes are making the important differences.
  • Consider changing in phases, or offering a choice of old and new. Eventually you’ll have to force the late adopters across but it gives some of your audience a chance to get used to the new layout and help the latecomers.
  • Don’t dismiss the responses – even those which are purely critical of any change – politely explain the reasoning behind the changes, and the evaluation of them.

One famous example of reaction to change was Facebook’s unveiling of a new design. It led to vehement opposition, but over time, people do accept the changes, as long as there is value in making them for users. And if not – why are you making the change?

So are there other ways you can make a substantial change to your website, and minimise ‘the supermarket effect’?

A redesign and new look for Twitter?

Twitter users were a bit shocked to suddenly find their pages looking rather different at 11pm on Thursday, July 17, 2008.

Sadly user error meant I didn’t capture a screen grab, but I can say it was more of a lick of paint than a rebuild, with a ‘rougher’ look, and less clean lines…

Considering the second round of VC funding, the purchase of Summize to become Twitter search (which I’ve been meaning to comment on until life interfered), and the hint of a redesign, I think there’s enough evidence of major movement in Twitterville. Could this be the start of a rapid move to money and repaying the investors?

Edit: Techcrunch managed to get a screencap. Probably why they get a slightly bigger audience than 140char!

If you want a busy homepage, let your users organise it

My interest in web design is generally based on usability and accessibility, due to the fact I’m not the most artistic person in the world. I can appreciate attractive designs, but there are far better people than me in the world at creating them.

But something has struck me that I think could be a good rule for web architecture and design, based on my own experience of website redesigns, and trying to cram an awful lot of information onto a homepage in the fear that if it doesn’t appear, no-one will ever see it or find it. So here it is:

If you’re forcing homepage contents on your users keep it simple. If you want it to be cluttered, let your users pick how they organise it – or what it on it.

This is backed up by a few examples. For instance, Google is the oft-quoted archetypal example of a very simple homepage. And one that could make more money for the company if it was covered in banner ads – but that would wreck the essence of it’s success.

Meanwhile users can be overwhelmed by busy homepages – but when was the last time you saw an empty Facebook or Myspace profile, or an empty Netvibes page? Users are happy to have a cluttered page, as long as they’ve been able to create and organise the clutter – just the same as people are happy to work at a cluttered desk if they’ve worked out the clutter themselves.

The recent BBC homepage redesign is a good example of moving in this direction -without hopefully overwhelming too many users. Personally I was disappointed it’s still a walled silo of BBC content only – but it’s a start.The Google homepage - keeping it simple

An example Netvibes page created by a user

Building and keeping a community

Not a day goes by without the launch of a new social site, or the relaunch of a brand with social networking as the new focus.

This isn’t a bad thing, but there seems to be some pretty big problems in between what website creators think is needed, and what website users actually want.

Personally, I see it as the chance to set up everything for the website users to build their own village. You can make the land flat, put a river nearby, or even plumb in gas and electricity supplies. But you can’t force the community to come and live there, unless they want to. (Spot the echo of Second Life in that analogy)

Myspace is often derided for being clunky to use, but it was the first place that community settlers found and made their own. Once it become a sprawling city, the early adopters started moving to the Bebo, Faceparty and Facebook suburbs. The business crowd decided to start commuting to LinkedIn.

If you think about these people moving around the web, you can easily see ways to create better sites. Look at urban regeneration for driving people back to cities (redevelopment/realignment of websites). Look at how cosmetic changes such as trees and flowers can improve an area (Small design changes). Think about consistent navigation (Ever been lost in a big city…the London A-Z is a site map)

With the Web 3.0 hoopla including ideas of a virtual ‘Second Life‘-style web you can walk around, it’s easy to get caught up in the primitive geek fantasy of virtual reality. But people already behave in a way that echoes human traits in real life since man first evolved