Why is Google going backwards?

A few months ago I wrote a column in the magazine arguing that we shouldn’t feel too aggrieved when Google tinkers with or discontinues free web services. But I have to admit I'm finding it hard to remain sanguine when so much about the company’s free offerings has changed for the worse lately.

For a start, January saw the unveiling of the new Google Image Search – an ugly step backwards, in my view, that wastes space while concealing useful information and functions. One site operator reported  an 80% drop in traffic from Google Image searches in the month following the redesign, indicating that users have been switching off in droves.

Then Maps got a similar treatment: this one may not be ugly, but the interface is again more opaque than what went before, and major features appear to be missing. Is it still possible to add waypoints to driving directions? Or to grab a short link to a destination? Does My Places even still exist? I’m honestly not sure what’s gone and what’s just hidden away.

Latitude meanwhile has been downsized into a less functional Google+ feature – prompting floods of protest in Google's product forums – while Gmail Chat is being subsumed into Google+ Hangouts to form a cross-service multimedia mess. For the time being it's still possible to switch back, and that's what plenty of users want to do.

Time and money has gone into making these things worse.

And then there's Gmail itself, which recently gained a tabbed inbox that has proved, to put it mildly, controversial. That too is optional at present, but what's not optional is the new Compose Mail interface that, by default, hides the text of the email you’re responding, as well as commonly used fields and buttons. It's such a shocking step backwards in usability that an unofficial Twitter account has been set up for disgruntled users to share their frustration.

Here's the thing that baffles me. I can understand that closing a service such as iGoogle or Reader frees up resources that can be focused elsewhere. As I wrote in my column, I don’t resent that. Frankly I want to see ambitious, expensive products such as Glass and driverless cars realised as quickly as possible. But all these changes aren't cost-saving measure – they're an expense. Time and money has gone into making these things worse.

I have to assume there's some reason behind this madness. Perhaps Google is working towards a grand ulterior motive that it considers more important than broad customer satisfaction. Or, perhaps the company is proceeding in the honest belief that its services are getting better and better. I have seen it suggested that CEO Larry Page has become increasingly surrounded by "yes-men", so corporate culture could be a deluding factor here.

Ultimately though it's immaterial to me whether strategy or incompetence is at play. What matters is the user experience. For many years I've championed Google as one of the few companies that really "got it" when it came to clean and accessible interfaces; it looks like that era is over.

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