Can We Trust Google to Avoid Chronic AOL-ism?

Media Guy Crosses His Fingers That It Can

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Everybody in media is already conditioned to Fear Google, and now, increasingly, the general public is too. Witness last week's "CAN WE TRUST GOOGLE WITH OUR SECRETS?" Time cover (a misleadingly ominous title for an annoyingly upbeat story). But what I'm fearing most, at the moment, is not Google's land-grabs (of media market share, personal information, etc.) or its shocking lapse of conscience (see its new self-censoring Chinese site), but that it will continue to screw up in really obvious, boring, hackneyed ways -- the same ways that AOL and Microsoft screwed up ages ago.

For starters, Google has obviously been developing CMD: Chronic Microsoft Disease, also known as bells-and-whistles-itis. Take, for instance, its free e-mail service, Gmail. Google recently added a Google Chat panel to the Gmail dashboard -- which is fine, but unfortunately those who aren't interested in Instant Messaging have to manually opt out (by setting their status to "Busy" -- which should be known as "Leave me alone!") and turn off the distracting list of available chatters.

Before that, Gmail added the similarly distracting "Web Clip" feature, which serves up random links like "Plight of Cambodia's Irrawaddy dolphin" (a story). But other times it serves up total crap -- like the seeming news headline "Paula Abdul to leave 'American Idol'" that turned out to be a link to one of those stealth-marketing, multiple-choice fake polls (asking who should replace Abdul if she left 'Idol'). And last week the Gmail Web Clip kept flogging the article "How to Beat a Choppy Market," which was nothing more than a plug for a $199-a-year e-newsletter from investment site TheMotleyFool.

That sort of bait-and-switch, incidentally, has been a longstanding problem with Google News, which picks up stories from traditional news sites and totally flaky blogs, treating them as equally authoritative.

Meanwhile, everybody talks about how Google's AdSense program is great and revolutionary because it's given all manner of Web sites and blogs easy access to advertising dollars. But actually, I think it sucks that AdSense offers automatic, indiscriminate ad support to lots of awful, amateurish, useless sites. Forgive me, but I'm nostalgic for the days when media buyers, rather than computer algorithms, decided what advertising vehicles were actually roadworthy.

Google's stated mission, remember, is "is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" -- but it seems increasingly willing to disseminate and even subsidize information indiscriminately, in a manner that's unorganized, misleading and totally useless.

Now, onto Google's AOL-ism. I'm not talking about its recent $1 billion investment in AOL, but rather the dangerously similar ways in which Google is mimicking the behavior AOL exhibited during its early days of hypergrowth.

By way of explaining, a flashback: Before Google existed, before Netscape existed, I launched an AOL site for a major consumer glossy. At the time, AOL was growing so rapidly that it couldn't handle all its incoming dial-up calls -- so much so that many days, over a period of months and months, I'd face constant busy signals. Which meant I couldn't update my damn site.

Now, you'd think AOL would have treated me, and other "content providers," like VIPs (giving us, at the very least, dedicated dial-in numbers). After all, we were helping AOL print money. But, no. I could barely get a call back from AOL execs, who treated my complaints about busy signals as just so much whining.

Guess what? That's exactly how Google is now. Sites disappear from top search results, or get dropped from Google News, and there is absolutely no way at all to find out why from anyone at Google. And its advertisers are freaking out about "click fraud" and have had difficulty getting Google to address the problem fairly and transparently. The bottom line is that Google has a growing arrogance -- a certain self-satisfied glibness -- in regards to how it treats its customers.

One last note: A week ago today, as I was trying to log into Gmail, this message popped up:

Server Error
Gmail is temporarily unavailable. Cross your fingers and try again in a few minutes. We're sorry for the inconvenience.

Look, server glitches happen, and this particular outage did last just a few minutes. But still, a $100 billion-dollar company is telling me to cross my fingers?

That's the kind of thing AOL used to tell me. Believe me, I'm crossing them.

The Media Guy's column appears weekly on and in the print edition of Advertising Age. E-mail him at [email protected]

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