Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Critique of Google Plus: The Good, the Evil and the Ugly

Last night I was finally sent an invitation to try out Google+.  And, after a quick examination, I'm glad I didn't believe the hype.  Don't get me wrong... I was very pleased and excited to get my invitation.  It's just that, judging by the entirely uncritical response I'd seen from my online communities, I was almost convinced that it was actually going to be the best thing since sliced silicon.  The marketing department was working overtime to build up expectations about this product in a way that only Google marketers could.  And scores of diehard Google fans were more than eager to help them out -- regardless of how good the latest Google product actually was.  Anyway, deep down, I knew it wouldn't be everything that everyone was making it out to be. 

The problem, at first glance, is simply that Google+ is stylistically sterile and cold.  The main page simply doesn't make good use of screen space and it's largely just an empty white blankness.  On a large white screen the actual content is relatively easy to focus upon, but there is still a lot of blank space next to pictures and photos (in addition to the general emptiness of other areas on the screen).  That's fine for a search engine, and okay for email, but terrible for social media which is supposed to be more about people engaging and expressing themselves.  Perhaps customizable themes will help out in that regard -- but Facebook was not quick to implement such a feature (it never did) and it's up in the air as to whether or not more personalization is going to being available any time soon for this product.

Beyond that... I'm not certain that Google Plus offers what Facebook doesn't.  It's certainly not as engaging with the Apps (and, like them or not, that is a draw for many people).  Again, engaging Apps may come... but they may not.  And, after everything Google should have learned from Facebook, there is still no "dislike" button (or the option for "-1" vote)! 

One thing I do like about Google Plus is that the content created on the service will continue to belong to the user(s) who created it.  That's no small thing, but it's not really an issue for most people either -- as most people merely disperse content rather than create it.  People don't generally use Facebook to create their artistic works. 

In any case... I suppose I might, effectively, end up being forced to use this product (at least peripherally) -- but I don't like it.  I simply don't like the feel of the service.  I don't like the letdown from the hype, and I don't like the fact that even more information is being cycled through one corrupt corporation.  As I said... Google presents a pretty good search engine, a ubiquitously convenient email service, and even Reader & Blogspot are decent services (I use both) -- but sometimes Google just tries too hard and hypes too much before disappointing utterly (re: Orkut, Buzz, iGoogle, etc.).      

Another primary thing I don't like about potentially sharing content on Google+ is in regard to it's political application.  Again... another lesson which should have been learned from Facebook (and Twitter).  Shared posts via this new service should have the option of not revealing who shared them before and who gave them a +1 vote.  This would allow sharing to continue with ease while not alerting the authorities (of some despotic regime) about who the proponents of a certain message are (when they inevitably stumble upon it).  This is a feature which could, and should, be added -- and it's largely why I'm writing this critique.  It's one thing to let people know that a post got a large number of +1 upvotes (that can be important to show that a movement is growing or that a post is valuable), but it's another to let everyone down the line know who gave those +1 upvotes or shared the article.  And it's naive to assume that all those who upvote an article aren't themselves naive about potential political ramifications.  Even online circles can, and will, be infiltrated by agents of oppressive governments.  There is no reason to make their list-making easier.

Furthermore, along those lines of political privacy and potential repercussions, it would be a slightly different matter if Google wasn't known to cooperate with the U.S. government in terms of readily complying with the flimsiest of digital search warrants.  As Wikileaks founder Julian Assange made clear recently... Google, along with Facebook & Yahoo, "have built-in interfaces for U.S. intelligence."  This is no small issue, globally or within the United States, but more pressure needs to be put on these corporations about this issue -- and that really hasn't happened yet, at all. 

Now... to further back up my earlier claims about Google being a corrupt corporation, I unwittingly searched Google for criticism of itself to provide some embedded hotlinks for this article... but guess what I found?  Unsurprisingly, not as much as I found when subsequently searching Yahoo with the same terms.  In fact... criticism of Google was largely buried in their own search results (with only the conspiracy fringes usually rising to the top of various search results).  There were no prominent articles featured about Google's original compliance with China's censorship policies.  No prominent articles about European antitrust and privacy or surveillance complaints.  No prominent mention of how Google revealed contact lists via Buzz.  It was relatively difficult to find any real criticism featured at the top of many search results.  This makes some obvious sense (as the corporation is apparently protecting itself), but it goes to show that Google is not always interested in returning the most relevant search results.  And that, in itself, is somewhat problematic.  Other issues of privacy and corrupt corporate influence abound around Google -- just don't use Google to search for information about these issues (unless you want your research seriously stymied). 

Beyond that... consider that Google has the power of potential retribution against any of its critics.  If a brief little comment like this one gained popularity (perhaps via Twitter or Backlinks) the author and their other works would still risk being knocked down a few levels in relevant search results.  You might want to make the most of any supposed "free speech" and try to facilitate the free flow of ideas... but Google has the power to stifle that process -- and is apparently willing to do so.  How does that jive with their primary function as a search engine and their motto of "Don't be evil"?     

Now, I don't entirely blame Google for all of these issues -- it's just another psychopathic multi-national corporation willing to do whatever it can to increase its power and profit margins.  Part of the blame for its ethical and stylistic shortcomings lie with us, the users of Google products.  We need to stop uncritically accepting everything Google offers us (as if it really cared about our personal interests).  We need to demand accountability from this corporation (and all of the powerful corporations that hold so much power over our daily lives).  We need to look past the brand and the marketing to see if Google is really helping to make positive changes in the world.  Anywhere it's doing harm and violating it's motto is where we need to be pointing and demanding change.  Google will only be as accountable as we demand it to be.  At least... ideally.
I suggest that the only way Google could really start to redeem itself is if it bumped up my blog's pagerank by a full point and then made these comments appear prominently on all searches for criticism about it.  But I don't think Google has the guts.  So, Google, the ball is in your court... or are you afraid? 

TL;DR -- Google Plus is only slightly better than Facebook, at best.  It's interface is somewhat unsightly.  Key features, which should be available, are not.  The dubious ethical actions and policies of Google, as a multi-national corporate entity, should not go unchallenged.  Google users, if they truly want to make it more user-friendly, should look past the brand and marketing, attempt to hold it accountable, and promote criticism of the company.  Prominent placement of this article within Google's search results does not necessarily indicate capitulation.  Feel free to repost this content for the sake of posterity. 


Daniele said...

I'm sure discovering they are keeping out unwanted information from google-search would be quite disturbing, if that were true that is.
But saying "it was hard for me to find results about such and such" and "it was much simpler to find them on yahoo" is far from being proof of such a thing.

Of course it "makes some obvious sense (as the corporation is protecting itself)" but tampering with pageranks is not something users would find acceptable at all, and it would certainly drive away even diehard-google-fans if proved to be true.

"One thing I do like about Google Plus is that the content created on the service will continue to belong to the user(s) who created it."

Actually google TOS is currently the main target of users criticisms and wariness towards google services. In fact you may retain any rights to the content you submit, but you forgot to mention you also give google a "perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services."
Not so much friendly for artistic works, is it?


N. Zero said...

I wasn't aware of the TOS shortcomings regarding control of your created content. Yes, that is something of an issue. And not nearly as tolerable as I thought it was.

As for the search results... If finding negative information about the company is more difficult when using its own search engine (relative to other search engines), at best that means the Google search engine isn't up to par. And, since the search algorithms are so closely guarded... it's nigh impossible to know if they are tampering with the results beyond merely analyzing the quality they are displaying. This, to me, is evidence that they may very well be tampering with the results regarding certain subjects. I'll let the results and common sense speak for themselves.

Anonymous said...

N. Zero said...

Here's the snarky anonymous comment from above which I mistakenly deleted:

"Interesting that you critique their design and layout when this blog is so poorly designed."

And here's my snarky response...

I'm sorry you don't like the design of my blog. But you should recognize that Blogspot is a Google product and I'm mostly using the template and tools provided. Since I'm not a multi-national corporation with thousands of employees to work on my blog... I think I have more of an excuse for it not being satisfactory to your sensibilities.

Thom Miller said...

One man's sterile is another man's clean, I guess. Personally, I prefer the G+ layout to either twitter or Facebook's layout.

As for what G+ offers that Facebook doesn't...well, the easiest answer to that it offers a hybrid of Twitter and Facebook. You have a one-stop place for 'public' content ala twitter and 'circle' content that only (various subsets) of your friends can read. And it's EASY to create either of these content types.

Anonymous said...

The search query you use -- "criticism surveillance google" to illustrate your claim of google censoring criticism is a bit contrived.

Why not try the simpler, more natural "criticism of google," and see what you get on Yahoo, Google and Bing. I'm seeing fairly comprehensive -- and mostly anti-google -- results in Google's search results, whereas Yahoo and Bing just give a bunch of wikipedia clones.

N. Zero said...

Admittedly, Thom, the design criticism was mostly just a surly tactic to set up for the stronger criticism. The design works well enough and Google+ may end up having some redeemable features... we will see.

Mike, the search terms I used may seem arbitrary, and I suppose search quality is arguable either way, but I do think that seemingly arbitrary searches are actually somewhat reflective of natural searches. And, if we don't compare several different methods of searching, I don't know how else we could judge and compare any particular search results. I feel that Google's lack of transparency works against it in this regard because we can't look at its technical schematics to ensure that it's optimally fair or accurate. We can only judge by what we see and make logical determinations based on that information. I mean... who is the watchdog monitoring search results supposed to be?

Daniele said...

I still think it's very unlikely that they're tampering with search results for a couple of criticism which some people may read, whereas tampering might lead to strong criticism, lot of attention and bad publicity.

Think about it, you're a multi million dollar titan and you decide between having a bunch of nerds read a couple of anti-google pages (considering the average user won't care that much, people will put up with a lot of bad stuff once they're accustomed to a service(see facebook)), and the risk of people finding out about about google-search inaccuracy and corruption, not trusting it for their searches anymore, thus going elsewere (bing, yahoo etc.)

N. Zero said...

I agree that it would be a bad decision, but huge corporations (and individuals operating within them) often make horrible decisions -- both unwise and unethical. Sometimes they become arrogant and think they can do, and get away with, anything they want. And if nobody is questioning or challenging them... they might.

And I'd still like to know who the watchdog group is that's supposed to judge the accuracy of search results.