Why and why not Google

There’s been a lot of talk in the past week or two about how much or how little people use Google’s services and why they’ve made those choices. I figured I might as well add my two cents.

I’ve written about this before, but that post was more about how some free services, including Google’s, had to be free to get to a large enough size to be useful. This time I want to jump into a conversation started by Jason Snell and Myke Hurley and continued by Marco Arment and John Gruber: how does one balance the usefulness of Google’s services against their cost in personal details? This is, at heart, an economic question, but one we’re not well equipped to answer because the “market” is unfamiliar to us. We’re used to paying for things with money, with time, and with attention, but we’re not used to paying with our privacy.

It’s not that sharing personal details is new—we do it all the time with friends and family. What we get in return, we hope, is a strengthened bond with those we share with. But Google is not our friend. In fact, when viewed in the context of traditional relationships, Google behaves mostly like a false friend, a traitor, taking our secrets and passing them along to others.

A closer analogy puts Google in the role of Hannibal Lecter, forcing Clarice to tell him the story about the spring lambs before giving her the information on Buffalo Bill. Like Clarice, we understand the quid pro quo, but it’s unsettling.

Coincidentally, Tim Cook just delivered a speech denouncing the privacy market.1 Easy for him, you might say, since that’s a market Apple isn’t in. True enough, but you could also say it’s easy for Google to throw around the word “free” because we don’t have a proper vocabulary to express how we pay them for their services. If we did, none of what they offer would be described as free.

On the spectrum of Google use, Marco and John are near the Cookean end. Jason and Myke are less concerned about hoarding their privacy and are more willing to use it to pay for the things Google does well. I tend to think of myself as a high-minded advocate for privacy, but I’m weak. Google gets my spring lamb stories more often than I’d like to admit.

Search, for example, is where I can’t live without Google. While DuckDuckGo does a fine job with site-specific searches—that’s why I use them for searching ANIAT over in the sidebar—it just doesn’t work for me in general. I’ve switched my default search engine to DDG a few times, but I’ve always switched back to Google within a week because its results are just better for what I search on.

Email is a mixed bag. My company has a Google for Work account that handles all of our domain’s mail. And I’ve long had a “drdrang” account with GMail. But I’ve recently started a “drdrang” account at FastMail to handle leancrew.com email and that’s where I hope to move in the future. I can’t kill the GMail account because it has too much inertia, but I hope traffic to it fades away over the next year or so.

I’ve come to hate Google Maps, not because the maps themselves are poor, but because Google has ruined the user interface. Its nowhere near as responsive as it used to be2 and often simply doesn’t work. In particular, when I’m in Street View and clicking and dragging to change my orientation, at least half the time Google Maps fails to notice when I’ve released the mouse button. From that point on, any mouse movement causes the orientation to change, screwing up my view. This is true in both Safari and Chrome and occurs whether I’m using a mouse or a trackpad. If I didn’t need Street View occasionally, I’d be using Apple’s Maps exclusively—despite its reputation, it’s almost always worked well for me.

The problems I’ve been having with Google Maps sound like the problems Jason and Myke have been having recently with Google Drive and Docs: a service that used to work well has been hurt by an upgrade that may have added features but definitely diminished the user experience. Google isn’t the only developer that sometimes moves its applications backward when it’s trying to move them forward, but web apps are special in that you get “upgraded” automatically. As Jason said, there’s no way to hunker down with an older, better version of the app and wait for the new one’s bugs to get fixed.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago I went back to using Google Analytics here on ANIAT. I really don’t like doing this because I’m now potentially trading a bit of your privacy for my use, but the various Apache log analysis tools just don’t compare to Google Analytics. And I need to know something about traffic on the site because I’m thinking about selling sponsorships. I try to assuage my guilt with the knowledge that GA is used all over the place; whatever creepy things Google may be doing with the information it gathers here through GA, it’s nothing that isn’t being done everywhere else you visit. And if you read ANAIT through RSS, you bypass the GA code.

I’m not sure all of my Google decisions are good ones, but they strike a balance that seems OK to me now. No doubt that balance will shift as Google changes its services and as I learn more about how its dealings in the privacy market.

  1. At least I think it’s a coincidence. Maybe Tim does listen to Upgrade

  2. Remember how great Google Maps was when it first came out? The ability to scroll the map by dragging it around was just magical.