Essays on Technology and Culture

Google Has Altered the Deal. Pray They Don’t Alter It Further

Google recently announced it would be shutting down its popular Google Reader service on July 1st. To say this decision has not been well-received is akin to saying the invasion of Iraq was not well-received. So far, Google has not seen fit to respond to the desperate pleas of RSS junkies looking to keep their fix, but has committed several new developers to Orkut. Reader is the latest popular product to be shut down by Google, and arguably the most beloved.

I recently got ahold of Google’s roadmap for the future of their platform, however, and we can expect a lot more panic among the Internet community, and soon. Google will be shutting down Google Groups in October of this year, followed by Google Voice, Analytics, and Trends in 1Q 2014. Gmail, and Google Apps will be sunsetted in 2Q, and by the end of 2014, Google will drop its search feature to focus completely on web advertising, Android, mobile advertising, Google+, Orkut, and stupid looking wearable computing.

Okay, that was obviously satire, but it’s becoming clear that if you rely on Google for anything they can’t monetize or sell ads through, you’re going to be up shit creek before much longer. [1] It’s increasingly clear that Google sees itself as merely a purveyor of ads, and that is informing its entire ethos from here on out. Every product decision Google makes should be viewed in our eyes through the filter of “How can Google use this to sell ads?” Android and Glass? They’re just ways to sell mobile ads based on what you’re doing, when, and where you are. It might not be as bad as this parody video from when they announced Glass, but it doesn’t seem far off.

Advertising, itself, is a necessary evil. As long as people need to know who provides a product or a service, and as long as people providing products and services need customers, we will have ads. A great deal of the things I access for free are supported in whole, or in part, by ads, including my favorite podcasts, a vast number of online comics, various independent bloggers, and the occasional social network or two.

And all the Google services I use, or did use until they shut them off.

The only alternative to the ad arrangement is a paid service, whether pay-to-play, or freemium. [2] These things are unlikely to stick around without some sort of income to keep the lights on, the bits flowing, and feed the people doing the hard work. The Internet is not a charity. What I object to is when the relentless pursuit of profit comes at the cost of what brought everyone through the door in the first place. It’s as if your favorite burger joint doubled the prices and started serving Grade-B beef and soggy fries.

There are many reasons this happens, but the biggest is that Wall Street demands year-over-year increases in revenue and profit, so that the value of stock goes up. For a company like Google with one major source of income (ads, of course), this means cranking up how many ads they can sell, and cranking down anything that doesn’t help them sell more ads. They call it “spring cleaning,” but that’s just a good folksy euphemism.

The worst part is that Google is sticky. I can’t see myself abandoning Gmail for anything at this point. I use Google Voice religiously, simply for free texting, as the actual carrier rates in the US are extortion. Google is the best company at providing products that we want to use and see ads while using it. That was the deal we thought we made. These products are worth us giving up our usage data, our personal information, our wants and desires to be sold, because we get something in return that is of equal or greater value to what we surrender.

Now, as I struggle to find something to replace a lynchpin of how I do my job, I’m not so sure Google is that company anymore.

  1. Gmail will probably stick around because Google automatically scans your email to provide ads. If you didn’t know this, you’ve been living under a rock, and I hope you have room for one more.  ↩

  2. I count donation-based and merchandise-supported models under the freemium model as well.  ↩