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Posted on August 21st, 2013 by Darien Graham-Smith

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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Posted in: Random, Rant


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11 Responses to “ Why is Google going backwards? ”

  1. JGWilliams Says:
    August 21st, 2013 at 11:58 am

    Could it be that Google are planning to reintroduce some of these features in paid-for versions?

  2. Darryl Says:
    August 21st, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    I agree, UX started out being a high priority, over the years this has eroded and now with privacy issues, I’ve started to move away from Google services where I can.

  3. Paul Says:
    August 21st, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    Like you I found the new google maps harder to use. Lots of things that were once one click away now have me scratching my head!

    I switched back to the “old” version of maps.

  4. Marc Says:
    August 21st, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    It seemed up until about 3 years ago, Google was just about making ‘cool stuff’ and to make the world a better place. Then for whatever reason it started to be all about the battle for the ‘ecosystem’ (witness how many of their services now require Google+) and now the user now comes second.
    After they stopped EAS for Gmail and killed Reader, I decided to move away from their services as much as possible, now I just use search.
    The decision not to make apps for Windows Phone is another sign of this, and a shame if you ask me as in many other respects they’re still a great company.

  5. John Says:
    August 22nd, 2013 at 7:26 am

    I am begining to think the same way. As an eco system if you like I went for Google and all it had to offer in terms of Gmail, Chrome, Android etc. Perhaps its bubble is beginging to burst and MS, Apple, or some other company will take the lead.

  6. Chris Says:
    August 22nd, 2013 at 8:35 am

    It takes a huge amount of discipline to resist the temptation to fix stuff that isn’t broken.

  7. Kevin Partner Says:
    August 22nd, 2013 at 11:09 am

    I don’t share Darien’s misgivings. The mail tabs are a work of genius as far as I’m concerned as I can now scan, “select all” and “delete” everything in three out of the four as it does such a good job of working out which category each email should fall into.

    Could you ever do waypoints in Google Navigation? If so, I never found out how.

    I used Latitude a lot but I understand why Google would want to subsume it into Google+ and therein lies the rub – I suspect much of this activity is aimed at bringing services within Google+ and therefore making it live up to its name and “encouraging” an ever bigger percentage of Google users to “upgrade”.

    As for users moaning – users always moan when anything changes. And then they get on with it and adjust.

  8. Steely Says:
    August 22nd, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    It could be that google are streamlining there services, and making changes over time that will allow them to merge into a single common interface, useable by current and emerging interface tech ! OR – they lost touch.

  9. Mark Says:
    August 23rd, 2013 at 12:41 am

    Gmail has had some horrible things done to it. I spend a lot of time showing people how to use it and the redesign is not intuitive. It doesn’t help that they’ve got different layouts, and some of the functions split off to the right of the screen, away from the others.

    Microsoft is also at it with – the ‘flat’ look I can deal with but the newbies are finding it difficult to know what to type where as the fields don’t stand out like they used to and the labeling disappears when you click in the box.

  10. Matt Says:
    August 25th, 2013 at 10:51 am

    I have to agree. What the heck is going on at Google? Their stock price soars, and their ingenuity left faster than Elvis! I’m a firm believer in creating optional changes, but not forcing them on users. First the new image interface drove me nuts. Then, they changed their email interface to “hide” other features like Contacts or Tasks (I suppose to make it more “fun” to see how many hairs we can pull out before we find them?) They used to have the BEST philosophy which melded well with users needs AND expectations.. now they’re putting way too much stuff in areas we don’t want OR expect!
    For those asking about “waypoints” in the Navigation/map page.. I think you mean (what Google calls) “destinations.” Who are these programmers who don’t understand the difference between an intermediary point (the reason the term “waypoint” was even devised) and an actual DESTINATION (the END?) To make your waypoints, you have to click that darn “Add Destination” link.. to add more points.. then you can arrange them. But the accurate usage of the English language is getting so abused, it’s amazing we can navigate or browse, or surf, or tweet, or hash-tag our lives into digital oblivion!
    Don’t even get me started on Microsoft’s BRILLIANCE in naming their completely different products THE SAME NAME! Which email do you have? Outlook? Or… Outlook? Or Live Mail, or mail on Or what about their wonderful and creative use of Windows Mail, to Windows Live Mail, to Live Mail, to Live Mail Essentials, now forget Hotmail or Live, because you’re all back to Outlook anyway! Wait? But are you online or are you using the client software? The support of this SNAFU is a NIGHTMARE!
    Oh, but wait! Google’s brilliance isn’t immune to the loss of creative thought either! Um.. Does anyone use Chrome? Wait.. which Chrome – the browser, or the operating system? Were they studying Microsoft’s playbook? Do they not learn ANYTHING from all the MS hater sites out there? I wonder if they surf those for new ideas? When I saw the new Google email COMPOSE pop-up.. I almost fell off my chair! Could it be they wanted their system as equally convoluted as what MS Mail (if that’s what Win8 now calls it – again) or has done?
    Don’t get me wrong.. I LIKED Google.. and ALL their amazing products, but now they seem to be messing with their bread and butter… and making GOOD supporters start to abandon ship! Personally, I would rather they spend their time fixing REAL issues with their bloated/botched services instead of working on pet projects.
    Google+ has been a virtual failure because it’s confusing. Yes, they offer plenty of integrated services, but for the average user (whom they do wish was their target) most get turned off because they can’t see why they should switch from Facebook – as the user experience makes far more sense.
    Sorry for the rant.. but I WISH the big 2 would stop messing with what people actually USE, and build more of what we want. Like how about MS or Google actually making a browser (or OS, I don’t care which) that actually ELIMINATES the possibility of injected malware? Otherwise, we’ll all soon be bowing down to Apple or (god forbid) learning Linux! hahaa! Peace out!

  11. Paul Says:
    September 23rd, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    It’s not just the UI elements something unpleasant is afoot. Google have succeeded in eliminating themselves as a provider of search services to my residence.
    For many years machines in my house have sat behind a UTM firewall with application control enabled. I have the browser privacy options enabled.
    Recently typing has resulted in an immediate re-direct to – a page which will not display.
    Attempting to diagnose why the page won’t display (and plenty of secure pages do so it’s not just that) I find that the UTM log is reporting blocking a port scan of ports 35517, 4976, 16063, 44082 and 39717 originating from port 443 (https) of one of those odd named domains of which google and amazon appear to have become so fond.
    Maybe it’s paranoid but with google’s prior streetview form I can’t help feeling something fishy is going on here.


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