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The End of the Google Honeymoon?

He sounded like the typical arch rival, but when Bill Gates announced to the world that “the honeymoon with Google will only last a couple more years”, did he have a point?

The world certainly has gone Google-Ga-Ga, with search, Gmail, Adwords, Analytics, AdSense and Toolbar causing a riotous storm. I have read countless news items and blogs proclaiming the march of Google onto the desktop as a curtain call for Microsoft. Google can now search within the local machine, will eventually power internet boxes as a replacement to Windows, and will eventually take control of the world!

Now, I’m certainly not Google bashing, but this kind of talk strikes me as crazy. Google have a powerful and technologically advanced search application. They have constructed beautiful search architecture and packaged it into a winning business model. The launch of AdWords and AdSense was pure genius in a cost-per-click market that was staid and unconvincing, but I for one have serious doubts about the immediate impact of Google on Microsoft’s monopoly.

I use Adwords, Analytics and AdSense on a daily basis. All my email is combined into a Gmail account, which I read through Google Desktop Toolbar. Google is my search engine of choice, and all in all I’m happy with my Google package.

But there are gripes, and they’re growing.

The Google interface is plain. Of course it is I hear you cry – why would you want to clutter up such great technology with a cheap veneer? Well, for us technical minded folk maybe, but I know plenty of non-technical people (and, lets face it, there are billions of them) that find this very plain approach to be extremely counter-intuitive. Take Gmail for instance. Apart from a powerful search function, Gmail scores pretty low on the usability stakes. Most of the non-techie people I come into contact with (I’m talking solicitors, teachers, middle managers – fairly intelligent people) have ditched Gmail for the familiarity and usability of Hotmail. In Hotmail Microsoft supply an integrated and highly polished product that takes a novice by the hand and walks them up the garden path of email. It might not have 2 gigabytes of storage and a whacking great search function attached, but a couple of folders and a delete button seem to work pretty well for most folk. As I said, I use Gmail daily, but I can appreciate what these people are telling me. Of course we are talking about a beta product so let’s not dwell on this one…

Google accounts don’t talk to each other. Often I will need to log into my Adwords, AdSense and Analytics account within minutes of each other – and be required to log in separately for each one. This drives me mad! In Passport, Microsoft has streamlined the login process from within the desktop, opening up a whole suite of web based services in an extremely usable manner. Sometimes it feels like Google is trying to keep me out! I’d love to see one centralized login from which all Google accounts can be accessed.

My point here is that people demand a user friendly, polished experience. Google are currently making it difficult for non-technical minded people to access the products on offer. A case in point can be seen in their help files. Just a couple of clicks into the Google Analytic help files will throw up numerous 404 error pages. Surely with such a powerful search facility a 404 should be unheard of. Why, instead of a 404 page does the king of search not provide me with a list of possible places or sites that might be able to help? To organize the worlds information – unless it is unavailable so you’ll have to make do with a 404 error screen, sorry!

Google has grown very fast, and in some respects I feel that the company has been surprised by its own success. The exponential growth of AdWords has generated so much revenue that Google is just throwing money in various directions, building Yahoo 2.0 in the process. Many of Google’s services are admirable. Google Search and Google Books have and will change the way that humans store and retrieve information. But Google is not a rival to Microsoft. In fact, given a couple of years, it could be Google that is threatened. Google has a killer model in the Search-Adwords-Adsense triangle. They don’t need any other services to survive in a financial sense, so perhaps we should just be grateful they are providing some of these services for free. But I for one hope that Google take time to consolidate and improve the usability of their products before they start chasing yet loftier aspirations. Google is powerful, but it is failing engage those who don’t take to technology as readily as others. Sure, you can organise the world’s information – but let everyone get at it when you have.

I don’t want the honeymoon with Google to end, but I sense that it’s about to. Let’s just hope they put in the work required to make a marriage work!

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