Has Google Gone Gaga?

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Watching Lady Gaga step off her private jet this morning for her ‘micro’ tour of Australia in elegant exuberance was a reminder of the endless reinvention of the Gaga ‘product’ that happens behind close doors – even the doors of a Learjet.

With the recent burst of new product releases and facelifts to the Google product range, what is really going on behind the closed doors of the Googleplex? There is no doubting their current market dominance but I think they have lost their way. Their strategic team is caught between technology, brand and finding a ‘new Google’ that doesn’t erode their ‘cash cow’ business model.

The dilemma

Google rose to fame and fortune by doing one thing extremely well – search. No design, no interface, no frills – they just built a world-beating search engine that wiped out the competitors because it was SIMPLE.

They also nailed the business model and as the cash started to flow, they began a continuous innovation and acquisition drive. Maps, Docs, Gmail and video, just to name a few, have added to the growth of this already successful company, however they are at a crossroads now that only innovative interface design and clever integration will solve.

As a technology company run by programmers, Google’s interface design and usability have been extremely average, if not downright difficult to use and understand in some cases. In fact, so bad that it gave birth to a new industry of ‘Google Gurus’, experts in Adwords and Analytics.

The constant delivery and release of new products, tools and ideas has created a cacophony of software that is worse than the feature creep for which Microsoft are infamous. Each application is quite good by itself, but if I can’t connect them in a single login and share data between them, it defeats the purpose.

The diagram below represents the plethora of Google applications. Some are tech tools and others more consumer orientated. Hover over each one to see their names.

Where is the vision? It used to be simple, but millions of users are now confused.

A good example of this rapid bloat is the ‘More‘ link in the top nav bar of the Google home page. The dropdown reveals a list of applications with a link to ‘even more‘. What?! Is that all the geniuses at Google could come up with? Will we see a ‘but wait, there’s more‘ link in that list in a few months? What about a ‘free steak knives‘ link?

Google need to take a step back from the frenzy of product development and acquisition and integrate some of this great software to make it useful and easy to understand.

The solution

There seems to be an ‘old school’ and a ‘new school’ argument going on in the ‘Googleplex’ boardroom at the moment. The ‘old schoolers’ are refusing to step away from the single search box approach, which clearly doesn’t fit the future business positioning, whilst the ‘new schoolers’ are broadening the product delivery through Google Plus in the rush to compete with Facebook and Twitter. However, this puts them at further risk of diluting their brand. The next 12 months will be critical to success, which is why visual and interface design is becoming so important to get the base product cleverly integrated with social, technical and simplistic user needs.

There clearly needs to be a Google Portal (not iGoogle) that ties all the tools that each user chooses into one simple admin adrea. I.e. calendars neatly wrapped with search and mail in one easy portal.

Google Plus

Having played with Google Plus for a few days it definitely has potential but still falls short of the mark. As an example, when I search in Google Plus, Google actually opens a new browser window and takes me away from the application. FAIL! Why does it display ‘Reader’ but not ‘Calendar’ in my main navigation after I log in when I don’t even use reader! FAIL! What happened to valuing user needs? Some may call it Web 1.0!

Innovation in Google’s interface design is underway. Individual products such as Analytics, Gmail and Calendars have all had updates that focus on much needed quality interface design improvements, but their attempt at a ‘unified Google’ is far from reality.

The really interesting question is – ‘could a Google Portal sit somewhere between the return to Yahoo!’s news portal design with a mix of social components that the Facebook audience know and love? Google Plus could definitely unify this, but it is a long way from stealing the market from Facebook.

Facebook definitely have the upper hand in this game with a controlled interface and massive dedicated user base. Google’s product mix is disjointed and techie. Let’s hope the brains-trust can take a step back and consider the needs of millions of users that fell in love with Google 1.0.

About the author

Jason Hawkins is a senior application strategist, information architect and director at KND. His knowledge is based on years of industry experience in taking online application ideas to reality across a broad range of industries.

KND are web and digital professionals with over 10 years in the business. We specialise in web, cloud and mobile apps, eMarketing and SEO strategy, servers, hosting and design. We work closely with our clients to achieve successful outcomes. Call us today (+61 7 3832 4077) or email (enquiries@knd.com.au) to discuss your next project.

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