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Wednesday, February 1, 2006

You Get Different Answers Depending on What You Ask

Adam Saunders says a part of Google’s mission was, and always will be, to stick ads on every place you can imagine:

“From its inception Google mission has been to organize the world’s information, however right alongside that mission was a corollary and necessary agenda to insert advertising into every aspect of a user’s online experience. Google is an advertising engine just as much as it is a search engine”

I don’t think so. I think Google is really interested in giving information to many users in the best way possible. To do cool stuff with information. To deliver highly usable products.

But wait. There’s ads all around every Google product, right? Yes, almost. But depending on which question you ask, you’ll get different answers. You’ll end up with different alternative routes of action to choose from.

For example, when you ask the question, “How can I make users see more ads?”, your answers will likely be:

Actually, these answers are reasonable, in the context of the question. An ad that’s in-between two pages of content has a high chance of being seen, assuming the user is willing to pay this price to see the content. And that’s of course the caveat; readers get very annoyed by some of these ad forms, so annoyed they will go elsewhere or use tools to fight the ads.

In all of above answers, content itself was secondary – because the question was not about content.

But let’s ask a different question. Let’s ask, “How can I deliver more useful information to users?” Answers can be:

None of above answers are about ads. Does that mean the products resulting from this are ad-free and create no revenue? You know the answer, of course. Google puts ads into most of their products. But the ads aren’t obtrusive, and you are likely willing to pay the price of having them. In fact, the (context-sensitive) ads themselves are often symptomatic of the question of how to make things more useful.

Ironically, of course, Google’s ads worked much better than comparable ad systems (at least in the beginning, when the notion of “relevant text only ads” was still new). You get the users first, and everything else is secondary – but you won’t make less money due to this.

I think the fact that Google News to this day has no advertisement, or the fact that Google in the first two years of its existence did not have ads, clearly shows their focus. It’s the focus on the user. Google even showed this respect to the user when it came to handing out search data recently. Google shows this respect in a lot of interface decisions they make with their tools.

To go back to another important recent topic, I think Google’s move in China was partly due to Google’s strong focus on the user. I do believe they can’t stand the fact they were made to deliver sub-optimal usability to Chinese users (over 100 million, as far as reported numbers go).

However, I also believe they asked a different question in China than some would have liked them to ask. While some said Google asked, “How can we make the most money?”, I don’t buy that. They asked the question, “How can we, Google, deliver more useful information to users?” They are used to asking this question. Thus, the alternatives they saw were:

They have been confronted with these alternatives for years. Google failed at working out a free flow of information with the Chinese government. They also thought their decision to stay out to not compromise their mission was a failure, as less and less Chinese users were coming to Google. The only thing they saw changing during that time was their competitors entering the Chinese market, with relatively little worry. So they only saw one option left: to give in to the censorship requests to get more information through (some information was already getting through via

Google also suggested that in the end, this was for the better for the Chinese independent of what’s better for Google. However, that is a secondary thought, as this was not part of their question. Let’s look at another question they could’ve asked. “How can we help the Chinese people the most and work against the censorship they are facing?” This time, there’s no “Google” in the question. Here are some answers to that:

With some of these options, a long term result may indeed be Google entering the Chinese market. Now I’m not saying any of these are easy roads to success – quite the opposite. I just don’t think Google really asked the question of “what’s best for the Chinese users to help them fight the censorship and oppression they’re facing.” We have to consider that Google’s defense did not include the word “censorship”, nor a long-term plan of how to help solve the problem of censorship through their promised investments in China. These are the questions that Amnesty International and others are used to asking. (Wikipedia’s article on Internet Censorship in China states, “human rights advocates . . . point out that if companies would stop contributing to the authorities’ censorship efforts the government would be forced to change.”) No, Google asked, “How can we get the most Google information through to the Chinese, and prevent performing worse than MSN and Yahoo at the same time?” And that question has a different answer.

Google has been asking several questions lately which I don’t think were too grand. Some of these questions dealt with how to enter a niche quickly to have a good stand in it as it grows; how to claim territory. Asking that question results in products like Google Video’s paid content service. It’s not a product the world has been waiting for, and it’s not a product that changes the way information reaches us. To me, it’s a product that announces to the world that Google staked their claim in this business. “We’ll still work on it to make it good, but see, we’ve arrived here. Hang on and don’t go shopping elsewhere in the meantime. And don’t create tech products competing with us in that niche (frankly, we’re too big for you).”

Google Base, Google Talk, Google Pack, and to some extent even Google Blog Search and Google Reader show this attitude of claiming territory. Even though some of these products are quite good, Google is clearly under a lot of pressure to compete – and they’re starting to compete on the pace of others, which results in mediocre products. (Gmail and Google Maps for example are in a different league; one that took competitors like Yahoo many months to even start catching up to. Google web search took Yahoo multiple years to catch up to.) Often, mediocrity is hard to tell from purposeful simplicity; is Google Talk a bad product because it lacks features, or is it a good product because it’s so uncluttered? At other times, the bugs or scaling problems Google faces with new releases (like Google Analytics) are very visible.

Only by asking the right questions will Google be able to release great products, and claim new markets the right way, without appalling a portion of their user base. Time will tell if they’ll be able to get back on track. Or did they reach a size were small errors and a bad image are not actually able to hurt them anymore? That Microsoft league, where everybody’s complaining about the annoying tools, yet everyone uses them? That AOL league, where you don’t need tech-savvy users who are loyal out of belief instead of necessity? No, not yet. Let’s watch.


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