Digital World: Is Google deal really a win-win situation?

If they’re offering us free applications to get us to help them make money, then they had better make sure those applications work.

By DAVID SHAMAH
March 21, 2011 21:38
A Google office.

Google office 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

You get what you pay for in life. “Bargains” that appear to give you more for your money than you expect to get often turn out to be too good to be true.

“Discount” stuff in the mall or market is on sale for a reason: If they could have gotten top shekel for it, they would have. It’s not like they’re running any charities! The biggest Web outfit offering free stuff, Google, isn’t running a charity, either, and when they give away stuff, you can be sure they’ve got an angle. I know it sounds cynical (and a tad ungrateful, since I, along with you, enjoy the fruits of Google’s largesse, using the 10 gigabytes of e-mail space and the free applications they provide), but it’s access to the information we input into their system, fodder for Google projects like Adwords, that has helped make the company rich. Without us, Google is nothing.

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It’s supposed to be a win-win deal: we give them free data, they give us free applications.

But considering the benefits accruing to Google from our participation in its money-from-words schemes and the huge amounts of money the company earns, laziness or lack of care in the execution of those applications is, in my opinion, unthinkable. If they’re offering us free applications to get us to help them make money, then they had better make sure those applications work.

Most of them seem to, most of the time. But maybe Google has gotten too big for its own good; recently I’ve been noticing cracks in its formerly solid-state user experience, and it could be an ennui has set in that lets the company believe it can “slide” – after all, it’s not like Google has any real competition anymore.

Take the venerable Google search engine, for example. Is it just me, or is it returning way too many less-than-relevant links, most of them trying to sell you something? Not that Google hasn’t been trying to stop “search spam”; after a recent scandal in which at least one big retailer was caught “gaming” Google to get higher results on the search page, the company released a new extension called “Personal Blocklist” to keep troublesome domains off your results page.

It’s only available for Google’s Chrome browser.

Speaking of which, I’ve been having a big problem with Chrome, especially when I “challenge” it by opening a lot of tabs. I switched to Chrome recently in the hope that it would perform better than Firefox, which is showing its age, but we’ve been having a troubled relationship, Chrome and I. The browser seems to go “on strike” at random times, and not necessarily when you would expect, either, like when trying to load a Flash movie or some other multimedia material.

It seems to be happen even when I am trying to scroll down on sites that have mostly text and photos. No doubt some background processing is going on. But what? Is Chrome “phoning home,” wherever that might be. It might be doing that – or it might be downloading and installing information behind the scenes to keep you up to date. Depends on whom you believe. But either way, those Chrome “on strike” moments are taking way too long – long enough that I am again looking at other browser options.

Your mileage may vary with Chrome. It’s entirely possible that the glitches are localized to my computer. But one Google product that neither I, nor many others, are happy with is Google Maps. What could be a great product and a real boon to humanity has proved itself clueless too many times, especially when you really need it.

Case in point: I recently went to an event in the South, in an area I wasn’t familiar with. Of course I wanted to consult with a map, but instead I decided to let Google do the work and put in the relevant information (at maps.google.com). It returned directions that seemed reasonable enough in terms of time, and of course, since I didn’t know the area well, the directions it gave on what to do when I got off the highway made perfect sense.

But not when I followed the directions: Once in the area, I was instructed by the Google Maps directions to turn down a specific side road, with my destination said to be several kilometers down the road.

Alas, it was not, and after asking a pedestrian for help on extricating ourselves from this map mess, I was told to either go back the way I came, or take a chance on a dirt road that “probably” would have gotten me to where I had to go.

It turned out that I wasn’t the only person at this event who was burned by Google Maps. When I tried it the following week for another trip and compared Google Maps directions to directions I already knew, I was shocked to see that, had I followed the Google method, I would have been led through a very congested urban thoroughfare that probably would have set me back 20 minutes or more.

Is it because Google Maps doesn’t know Israeli roads well? No, there are plenty of complaints about the directions it gives in many other places, including in the US.

Note that I am not talking here about the “funny” directions Google Maps gives, like kayaking from California to get to Hawaii, or taking a jet ski to go from Japan to Shanghai. And I’m not even talking about the obvious “common sense” problems many people seem to have.

Just like with Chrome, Google Maps is a great idea – but it’s sometimes poor execution makes it unreliable.

You could say it’s a case of “you get what you pay for” – since Google doesn’t charge for these applications, they don’t need to worry about quality control so much. If you want accurate on-the-go directions, shell out for a dedicated GPS device.

But those Google tools aren’t free; we’re paying for them with valuable data, which Google is using to rake in money. We users are faithfully fulfilling our end of the bargain, supplying Google with the raw material it needs to make money. Shouldn’t we expect Google to uphold its end of the bargain?

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