Google Remorse and the Buzz Privacy Backlash

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Macworld contributor Kirk McElhearn is suffering from a massive case of what I call "Google remorse," and he's not alone. McElhearn's column, "Why I'm Dropping Google," is part of a much larger backlash I'm seeing against the search giant.

Kirk's complaints--essentially that Google doesn't care enough about privacy, knows too much about him, and is just too big--aren't unique. He says Google is violating its core value, "Don't Be Evil," with "alarming frequency of late."

Yes, Google has fallen to earth in recent weeks. Buzz, Nexus One, the mess in China, and CEO Eric Schmidt's absolutely true, but unfortunate comment about privacy, have demonstrated that the company is, in fact, a collection of human beings, who may create Android, but aren't droid's themselves.

(Schmidt's comment was that, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place," is only common sense. McElhearn considers it to be "flip.")

In my view, Google is not evil, but clearly has some growing up to do.

Previous Google products were just pieces of software whose interactions with humans could be automated and controlled. The online help that Google offers was quite sufficient and, for the most part, its products were self-supporting.

Google is part of a group of "next generation" Internet companies with huge numbers of customers from whom they are effectively and almost completely insulated. They make decisions based on instrumented software more than talking to their users.

Senior Google managers have admitted the company didn't anticipate the anti-Buzz privacy backlash. The Nexus One customer service complaints clearly caught Google by surprise.

No, Google isn't evil, just going through a stupid phase. If the company can absorb the lessons of the past six weeks, all will be forgiven and mostly forgotten. If not, Google is potentially on a downhill slide.

What does Google need to learn?

1. Google must understand that it may be loved but isn't trusted. People do not understand what Google does with the information it collects about them or how it intends to use it in the future. Google needs to explain itself in words anyone can understand--and have faith in.

2. Google must adopt a conservative policy where privacy is concerned. That was the big mistake with Buzz. The new social network required opting-out, and could potentially violate user privacy from the moment they turned Buzz on. That is simply not acceptable. I understand greater privacy works against Google's interest in gathering as much information as possible, but so be it.

3. Google must be more personally involved with customers. Intuit, the QuickBooks company, has a long history of sending employees from across its organization out to visit customers, sometimes for days at a time. I remember Intuit office cubicles where workers posted pictures of the customers they had visited and thought of themselves as solving those specific customers' problems. That program worked exceptionally well in connecting Intuit, its employees, and products to customers. Google should do something like this.

There are two choices: Google can step up and become truly customer-focused in ways it has never even attempted, or it can dramatically scale back its ambitions to what its current way of doing business can support.

David Coursey has been writing about technology products and companies for more than 25 years. He tweets as @techinciter and may be contacted via his Web site.

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