Friday, March 2

At Google you can't get there from here

Is having a massive online audience, across a network of online products, enough to win? Not always. The best networks must involve the audience across products, and the products in the network must be monetisable. Google's a great example, both of what can go wrong and what can be done right.

Over coffee I asked a senior Google salesguy if it was hard selling ads on products that weren't made with ad sales in mind, across a network of products so loosely connected. He admitted that if AdWords' search inventory wasn't such a money-making machine, then making his targets on the rest of the network would be really tough. He then went on to tell me just how far over his targets the team were, and how they were too busy just counting the money to do much else (well, not quite in those words, but that was the gist of it.)

Still, it seems like Google (unlike the other networks) builds products mostly because they're cool, not because they might earn more revenue. I say that because so few of them display any advertising, and because the first premium Google product's only just been announced. While nobody worries about earning more revenue, it's not an environment that promotes network marketing - the kind of thinking that could introduce users of one product to other products on the network.

Example-du-jour? Google Reader. I'm so impressed with this product. Still in beta, yet it marches all over its competitors with hobnail boots, carrying a big stick and shouting a lot about ruling. I love the way I can just type in "mobilecrunch" and it will search and autodiscover the RSS feed, so I can add a new RSS feed in two clicks and a search term. I love the way it flags stories as 'read' as I scroll past them. I love being able to drag and drop feeds to reorder and drop them in a folder. I love lots more, but this post is not about how much I love Google Reader (though did I mention I love Google Reader?)

I first heard about Google Reader on another blog, which is always good for trial conversion because it comes with an endorsement from someone you trust. But another effective way to introduce a consumer to a product is via other related products the consumer uses - that's what networks are for. The very reason we call them "networks" is because we inherited the concept from television, where ad breaks have been used to promote other TV shows on the same network since the first Cold War. It's not a new concept.

Yet only recently have we seen the beginnings of 'network thinking' in Google's interface. Sometimes, some products from the rest of the network get a mention in the interface of another. Though when it does happen, it seems to have more to do with "here's another product developed by the same product group at Google" than "here's a product from elsewhere on the network that we think you'll like."

For instance, I'm writing this post in Google Docs, which has now become Google Docs & Spreadsheets (by the way, when it's time to call it "Google Docs, Spreadsheets, Presentations and Project Management" can we just call it "Google Office"? We're losing tongue-rollability.) Google Docs encourages you to use it as a blog editor, and as my blog's part of the Google network, it couldn't be simpler. And in the top left nav for Google Docs there's links to GMail, Calendar, Photos and search, presumably on the assumption that if you're comfortable creating and storing documents online, it's time you tried storing other work-type data there too (hmm... is Photos really a workplace product? Not sure why it's listed - part of the same product group?)

If, like me, you're using Google Docs to craft blog posts, it's a safe assumption you're also into reading blogs, so is there a link in the nav to Google Reader? Uhh no. Why not? Surely it's a natural fit. Microsoft Office doesn't have an RSS reader client in the suite but that's no reason why Google Office shouldn't include one.

Reverse that thinking, and you'd have to figure that Google Reader's navigation should include easy one-click access to Google Docs, right? Nope. In fact, Google Reader's got no network navigation, not even to search or Blogger. Despite having a 3-column nav with a scrolling pane view - so much easier to add a network navbar to.

If I return to the network navbar in Google D&S, there's another link that says "All my services...". Aha, that's what I've been missing, I think. I'll click on that link and a clever bit of asynchronous ajaxery will unfurl a longer navbar with the services I expect to have something in common with my current task...

Oh no! I've landed on Google Accounts, which has more to do with managing my Google account IDs than accessing my Google services. Yes, there is a list of services I'm using there on the right, but it's a single-column vertical list that stretches wayyyy below the fold before it gets to Google Reader. Not only is the list not sorting itself according to the product most recently used, there's actually no way to reorder that list, change it to a horizontal list, or add or remove items from it without deleting your account. Google Accounts is not the way any Google user wants to navigate between services.

Yes, it's true, the Google homepage has made a virtue of the small, fast-loading page, and network navigation adds to that pageload. it's probably also likely that far more people type "Google Reader" into their search form (on Google, Yahoo! or whatever their default homepage is) to access the service than would click on a network link. But that assumes that the user knows about Google Reader, when network navigation should perform both the navigation task and the network marketing task.

It's possible that because Google Reader is still in beta, the product team are deliberately avoiding network navigation to control server load. But Reader seems like a mature app ready for the limelight, and that still doesn't explain the lack of network nav in Reader pointing to the other Google products.

If the beta status of the product doesn't explain the lack of network nav, does it perhaps explain the absence of AdWords integration? As far as I can tell, Google Reader seems like the perfect product for in-context text ads, much more so than GMail, where clickthru rates are limited by the strong task orientation of the product (when I'm have-way through writing an email, even an in-context ad for a product I want to buy won't get my attention.) An RSS feed is way more structured and contextual than the ramblings of my average email message; more than enough context there to ensure targeting is successful. Reading feeds is much less task-oriented than email, meaning clickthru rates should be higher, arguably higher than in search. Even the three column layout with scrolling viewer pane lends itself to keeping ads visible wherever the eye wanders.

My experience of Google makes me think that the real reason there's no ads is because the Google Reader team are Google developers. With a few exceptions, the Google developers I've met have the freedom to develop products without thinking about how to make them pay; are working with no revenue or network marketing goals to achieve; and are working within the pervasive and powerful Google culture. A culture that admits that while earning money may be necessary to keep the free pizza and espresso coming, the value of the developer's own compensation is largely determined by the sharemarket, which still values the company at an amazing multiple of earnings. If the value of my employee options far exceeds my salary, and there's only a tenuous relationship between revenue and the value of those options anyway, and my boss dislikes the very concept of advertising as much as I do, there's not much impetus to monetise the product I'm building.

Again: I love Google Reader to bits. I just wish I could get there from here.

Postscript: this is too funny! I hit 'publish to my blog' and Google Docs tells me I can't do that because I migrated my blog from the 'old' Blogger to the 'new' Google Blogger. Which I did months ago, and which Google wanted me to do because it was part of bringing Blogger further into the Google Network. If there were anyone at Google with a network marketing mindset, don't you think they would have put the Blogger and Docs teams in a room and not let them out until this was fixed? Either that person doesn't exist or they're being treated like a mushroom.

Buy content through ScooptWords