Google and I go way back. I’ve used Google as my home page for so long, I sometimes forget there are other front doors to the internet. I use Gmail, Google Reader, Google maps, YouTube and Google+.
In fact, I distinctly remember when Google’s signature search service appeared in 1998. At the time, search meant bouncing around various flavor-of-the-month directories, all of which looked awful and provided spotty results.
When Google arrived with its clean search page and amazing performance, I recall wondering, “How can this be free?” I pushed the question aside and told myself, “Who cares? It’s awesome!”
Since then, of course, Google has come to dominate the internet. Throughout its ascent, Google has largely managed to maintain its populist, on-your-side image. I’d put the overall Google worship somewhere just below Apple, but of course way above Facebook and Microsoft.
And yet, even though I didn’t know it back in the 1990s, Google was a pioneer in turning an appreciative audience into big money. As the saying goes, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer, you’re the product being sold.”
That reminder comes up a lot whenever a fervor erupts over the latest Facebook changes, but it applies equally to Google. Think about it: Have you ever directly given Google any money? Perhaps you’ve bought some Google ads or you’re a power user of Google apps, but the fact is that most of us have never seen “Google” appear on our bank statements.
I’m thinking about my role as a commodity these days because Google just rolled out changes to Google Reader, an RSS reader that’s been near and dear to my heart for years. I use Reader every day. A few years ago, I built a news aggregator and blog directory with Reader at its core. I stopped trying out new RSS readers a couple years ago because I’d inevitably return to Google.
But today I find myself upset with a company that’s been providing me “free” services for all this time. The Reader changes are an annoying step backward. The design and user-interface are worse. Even though there is more white space, items somehow look more crowded. Google absurdly pushed content down on the screen, which makes no sense for a service whose primary function is to read stuff from the internet.
So it appears clear that Google doesn’t care much about Reader. Check out this quote from Google’s announcement of the changes:
We hope you’ll like the new Reader (and Google+) as much as we do, but we understand that some of you may not. Retiring Reader’s sharing features wasn’t a decision that we made lightly, but in the end, it helps us focus on fewer areas, and build an even better experience across all of Google. If you decide to stay, then please do send us your feedback on today’s set of improvements.
“If you decide to stay?” Geez, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
So it’s a good reminder that Google and all of the other companies that provide “free” digital services don’t owe us anything. Google is not a public utility. Google, Twitter and Facebook can do whatever they’d like with you and me … we’re their product, after all.