Google’s Shuttered Projects: Does it Come Down to Trust?


Danny Sullivan offers a thoughtful piece “celebrating” and reviewing Google’s failed (closed) projects, accompanied by “celebratory” (rationalizing, explaining) quotes from Google.

Of course, there can be any number of reasons why pilot projects fail to take off. On the flip side, Google’s dominance in some of the lines of business that started out in Google Labs or otherwise alpha level functionality, is nothing short of astounding — think Google Maps.

But is there a deeper reason for Google’s inability to gain traction with what often seemed to be promising initiatives? With their tech savvy and reach, they should have an advantage from the standpoint of promotion as well as deep pockets to ride them through to completion.

One thing that comes to mind is user trust. Is there an unconscious upper threshold of total company product adoption in many users’ minds? For business users, is that perception particularly acute? As in: “I love Google Search and YouTube, and Google Maps I can’t live without. I’m willing to try Google 411… but when it comes to this latest invention, I think I’m going to take a pass and stick with [independent provider x].”

In the old school of American political science (pluralism, ne0-pluralism, Robert Dahl’s Who Governs?) the idea was that contemporary America was reasonably democratic even though there were elites (C. Wright Mills). As long as no one elite had total control over all facets of an economic region (for Dahl it was New Haven, CT), there was something analogous to the checks and balances the Founding Fathers of the country envisioned. That concept (wish?) still resonates with many people. In fact, it’s baked into the American psyche.

Why wouldn’t people approach their business relationships or technology adoption decisions the same way? (“I’m using five Google products all the time, but something about this new one bothers me. I think I’ll take my business to the other guys for a change.”) It’s hugely different when a startup starts doing well with a similar product. Why? Well, the underdog syndrome has consumers cheering that entity, community, product on to greater heights. When a product is Google-owned, you can no longer cheer for Page and Brin (though the company would like us to still see them all as underdogs). And the developers of Google’s products (even the widely loved GMail and Chrome) are rarely charismatic, or even visible. They are software developers: that’s what they do. They don’t feel the need to be hybrid entrepreneur-evangelist-developers. With a new or acquired Google product (say Aardvark?), it’s not cool to recommend it to friends anymore, because you’re recommending “just another Google product”. You make a conscious or unconscious choice not to work too hard at adopting that thing. The underdog syndrome, too, is baked into the American psyche.

Beyond trust is being top of mind in a category. Foursquare gets to be top of mind in something specific. If the same product is owned by Google, the positioning gets muddied.

So is any of this true? Do new Google initiatives now fail because people don’t trust Google to be a powerful elite in the ecosystem across too many categories? Are users consciously wanting to spread the love, if not to the tiniest garage startups, at least to other elites?

Let’s go through Danny’s list product by product, to find out.

Google Wave: Beyond the product being potentially too advanced and new to achieve quick adoption by the average (especially non-technical) user, there is a huge trust component to sharing internal company messaging across different communications styles, with different objects, etc. At the risk of oversimplifying, the product works in the general category of the old-school “office intranets”. Those kinds of systems worked in an atmosphere akin to “lockdown” and the service providers took security seriously. Despite the fact that similar players in the category like 37 Signals are offputtingly casual to some, the fact remains that Wave entered a paranoid type of market category with a freewheeling, experimental attitude. If people are going to be free-wheeling in their work and project environments, they’ll do it in ways they’ve already grown accustomed to (even using Skype or various cobbled-together solutions, or multiple types of solution). Despite the Cluetrain 2.0 style lectures by “how to set up a Wiki” evangelists near the end of the Web 2.0 hype phase, it’s clear that many aren’t adopting. The alternative to going whole hog into a single, consolidated system, for many, appears to be using multiple solutions clumsily and sometimes badly. The alternative, though, is akin to totalitarianism. Inhibited by trust issues? Yes.

SearchWiki: Did Google ever really seriously intend to keep this feature? Was adoption really the problem, or was this one of the many weak experiments in the Google Search world intended to act as a trial balloon to see how much genuine behavior would result, as opposed to self-dealing and spam? Leaving the feature in wouldn’t hurt anything, but Google must have felt it was a distraction to users. I’m sure they collected enough data to learn a few things during the time it was running. Trust issues? No.

Google Audio Ads: This was a very ambitious initiative. Nothing has changed in Google’s thinking long term: they’d like to broaden the idea of advertising auctions to any conceivable medium. There’s a slight snag, though. This works best on sites Google owns. To enable ad auctions on publishing platforms & content Google does not own, Google needs to sign partnerships. The end result of such partnerships may be that the publishers & providers won’t partner with Google for prime inventory but only remnant inventory. Take the analogy of a billboard owning company like CBS or Pattison. The best case scenario for Google would be to run an auction where advertisers could bid on the inventory digitally, and run the ads digitally. But they’re still at the mercy of the providers. Would the providers be resistant to such partnerships? Absolutely. They don’t see their interests as aligned with Google’s, especially if in the short term their revenues are not threatened by the old model, and especially if they believe they could create their bidding technology when their world becomes digitized. Google, in short, faces competition with ad networks, other technology platform providers, and resistance from publishers and media sources. They’ll continue to study ways to control more of their inventory directly, in partnerships where the other party is eager to try something out long term. Closing Google Audio Ads doesn’t reflect at all on Google’s backing away from the larger strategy. It does point to some of the roadblocks they’ll face in attempting to play a middleman or platform role for media assets they do not own. Did trust issues derail this one? In a strange way, yes.

Google Video. Google Video got its butt whipped by YouTube, so Google bought YouTube. The user culture at YouTube was much more vibrant. Google Video got hammered by a high spam to content ratio, in both videos and comments. On YouTube, when it came to the user base, there was a lot of “there there”; on Google Video, it felt like no one was home. YouTube’s culture was edgy and fast-moving. They also moved quickly to become the standard for embedded videos.  As a result of all this, Google Video failed to gain momentum while YouTube momentum was huge. Trust issues? Pretty much. But also, users simply couldn’t strongly identify Google’s brand with video. (Not until after the YouTube acquisition.)

Dodgeball. Why don’t we chalk this one up primarily to the “first draft effect”. In the first attempt to identify opportunities in a category, services don’t always find their feet. The valuable experience (and fundability) the founders gain from being acquired by Google helps them succeed much bigger on their next venture, especially if it’s playing in a similar space. On top of that, Foursquare being identifiable as a standalone thing, and coming along at a time when tweets helped to augment what it does, helped its momentum as an agenda-setter in the very space it wanted to define for itself. One part experience, one part positioning. You can’t entirely rule out the possibility that users feel better about sharing their location when it’s somehow a “cool” service that isn’t owned by the big guys. Typical early adopters of mobile and social apps are not exactly careful about their privacy; but like everything else, they like the exploitation of their willingness to trust, to at least be spread around a bit. Trust issues? Not entirely, but somewhat.

Jaiku. Google decided not to devote engineering resources to a Twitter clone, which just might indicate that it’s the user base and the data, not the amazing innovation and code base, that hold the key to Twitter’s current market value. In other words, there is room in the world for only one “show about nothing”. Trust issues? Hard to say, but don’t rule them out as a factor in slowing adoption had Jaiku gotten far enough along.

That’s enough examples to make the point. The many advantages Google’s reach, brand, and resources bring to a project can be offset by users’ unspoken “single overlord adoption threshold”. Both impulses will be at work when Google rolls out its mega social networking initiative near the end of this year. And indeed, it’s hard to completely untangle the issue of “I don’t trust you” from the positioning issue of “I trust you to do certain things really well, and I don’t believe you’re actually good at these other things.” These issues are inevitable as a company grows very large. It doesn’t mean anyone at Google is actually untrustworthy. It speaks more to an inherent fact of contemporary customer psychology, where the very big will do anything to mask or soften that bigness in order to appear humble and scrappy.

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