Google Kerfuffle Leaves Bloggers’ Feathers Ruffled

Google raised Web surfers’ hackles after a seemingly simple change linking its Google Reader service with Google Talk.

The move has raised concerns about privacy and highlighted the delicate balancing act that companies with vast stores of personal data have to perform as they try to improve their offerings. For Google in particular, the incident marks a public relations setback as it tries to add a social networking flavor to its extensive list of Web services.

“We’ve gotten a lot of helpful feedback about our new sharing feature. We’d hoped that making it easier to share with the people you chat with often would be useful and interesting, but we underestimated the number of users who were using the Share button to send stories to a limited number of people,” said Chrix Finne, product manager at Google.

“We’re looking at ways to make sharing more granular and flexible, but in the meantime there are several ways to share items without letting all of your Google Talk friends see them,” he added.

Sharing Snafu

Google Reader is an aggregator that enables users to go to a single Web page to check the latest entries and updates on their favorite blogs and Web sites. On Dec. 14, Google announced a new feature to the service that makes posts and articles designated as “shared” by Google Reader users available to every person listed as that person’s contact or friend on Google Talk, an instant messaging service.

The response from Google Reader users was immediate and largely negative, with some 70 complaints posted on the Google Reader Team’s public forum the Monday following the change.

Disgruntled users said the new functionality was the “worst ‘feature’ you have ever introduced” and that it “sucks big-time.” Much of the negativity dealt with Google’s whole-hog approach to sharing with Google Talk contacts. The company left users without any way to choose who they wanted to share items with and those with whom they did not want to share.

“Don’t you think there might be a method of being selective with what you share that might be slightly more fine grained than, you know, deleting our shared items en mass?” Modulo Noh wrote on the Google Reader public forum.

“I think the basic mistake here, as Modulo has noted, is that the people on my contact list are not necessarily my ‘friends.’ I have business contacts, school contacts, family contacts, etc., and not only do I not really have any interest in seeing all of their feed information, I don’t want them seeing mine either. This is a major privacy problem,” Banzaimonkey said in a post.

“I don’t need Gmail to become a social networking tool. If I wanted that I’d sign up for Facebook, Orkut, or whatever, I want it to do email, feeds, docs, etc. and I want it to respect my privacy,” Banzaimonkey added.

Others were dismayed that Google had made the new feature one that users would need to opt out of to turn off, rather than opt into to turn on.

“Now every one of my gmail contacts can see all of my shared items? There should be an ‘opt-in’ option where me and my friend mutually agree that we want to share with each other. Otherwise, I’m not going to feel comfortable tagging items. This is BY FAR the worst feature ever added by Google,” kronicfatigue wrote.

Delicate Path

Google has run into a briar’s patch of thorny problems similar to those confronted by many large companies over the years, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at The Enderle Group.

“Google is still, for all its size, a very young company and will likely make some impressive mistakes next year. If it survives them, it will continue to grow stronger, but as it grows the rules change, and governments start to get involved,” Enderle explained.

“That suggests that Google will need to spend a little more time thinking through its moves going forward or they will go down a path painfully blazed by companies like Standard Oil, AT&T, RCA, IBM and Microsoft — some of which didn’t survive the lesson intact, or in the case of the original RCA and AT&T, at all,” he told TechNewsWorld.

FFor Google, the challenge will be whether it can hold onto its unofficial motto of “Don’t Be Evil” as a corporate entity. That means the company will have to seriously look at how it rolls out changes for its offerings.

“If Google is serious about their do no evil policy, they should always default to opt-in. Part of the problem when a company gets as much power as Google is amassing is it starts thinking of itself as an uber-parent which knows what’s good for its customers. This a company killer, and, when we refer to companies as being “evil,” it is often the result of them taking this ill-advised superior position,” Enderle stated.

To protect itself from similar missteps in the future, Google should follow two rules, said Jeremiah Owyang, a Forrester Research analyst.

“There are two things they have to deal with. One, warn people that they are making the change in advance. And two, you make it opt-in. You don’t want to surprise people,” he told TechNewsWorld.

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