If Google's search and ads business is about sending users elsewhere, its apps business is about keeping users happy where they are, on Google's properties. The company wants to build brand engagement and loyalty, to be competitive with social networks and online application service providers.
As part of its ongoing apps improvements, Google last week revised its iGoogle personalized home page to make it more appealing to developers and more usable for users.
Google tested its changes and concluded that the new features generated better "happiness metrics," a set of statistics that shows increased usage and longer periods of engagement.
But it flubbed the launch by failing to sell the new iGoogle to its users and failing to give them any choice in the matter. Unhappy users rebelled, complaining loudly across various online forums.
One annoyed iGoogle user posted iGoogle product manager Jessica Ewing's phone number and encouraged people to complain to her. According to an e-mail I received about this, her voicemail account has become inaccessible, presumably because it is full of complaints.
A post announcing the changes on Google Groups shows a one-star rating, based on 262 user reviews, a tactic used on Amazon.com by those angered with copy protection technology that EA placed on its game Spore.
Almost immediately after the complaints began to appear, some of the features lost in the redesign reappeared, like the "+" buttons used to show and conceal summary text beneath RSS headlines. Google actually does listen to its users, even if it would rather not field questions from all of them individually.
This wasn't the first ill-received design change made by an Internet company, nor is it likely to be the last. But the incident underscores the weakness in Google's preference for automated systems as a means of user support: People want to be heard rather than herded toward an automated help system.
A post on the official YouTube blog today exemplifies Google's attitude. It says, more or less, please don't burden us with your questions.
"We've heard some of your concerns around trying to get the assistance you need when having an issue on the site," the YouTube post begins. "Our ultimate goal is to keep improving the product so you essentially won't need any help at all."
Sure, everyone knows you can save money on customer support representatives if you can automate the help process. But as anyone who has ever been frustrated by automated phone support menus or inadequate online documentation knows, there are times when you just want to be able to talk to a human.
As Google transforms from doorway to destination, from search engine into social apps engine, it may have learn how to communicate with its user base in a more social way.
Consider one of the comments posted on Search Engine Journal editor Loren Baker's plea on Sunday for Google to restore his access to his Google and Gmail accounts. Someone posting under the name Narayanan Hariharan wrote, "Come to think of it, why don't you contact [well-known Google blogger ] Matt Cutts if you haven't done that already? I've noticed that contacting him results in getting solutions much faster!"
That's not really the way customer support should work.
In other words, Google needs an 800 number and someone to yell at.