On the road to the top, everyone makes a few mistakes right? Several interesting new software releases this year have resulting in Google admitting their lack of planning. The minor annoyances experienced here are really just side effects of being unwitting test subjects in their labs:
Google Web Accelerator – “Thank you for your interest in Google Web Accelerator.
We have currently reached our maximum capacity of users and are actively working to increase the number of users we can support.”
Google Secure Access – “The Google Secure Access client is no longer available for download.
The Google Secure Access client was originally intended to provide secure web access for users at a few local Mountain View, CA “hotspots” that Google established as part of a community outreach program. Adoption of this limited release technology has exceeded our expectations and we recently began restricting access to the few locations it was originally intended for. We are excited about the widespread enthusiasm for this technology and are currently investigating ways to make it more broadly available in the future.”
Google Analytics – “Thank you for your interest in Google Analytics!
Google Analytics has experienced extremely strong demand, and as a result, we have temporarily limited the number of new signups as we increase capacity. In the meantime, please submit your name and email address and we will notify you as soon as we are ready to add new accounts. Thank you for your patience.”
While it looks like these services have just been caught with their pants down, the story here is considerably more interesting.
All your surfing habits belong to us. Seriously.
It bears reiterating that Google’s goal is to track all web usage for the purpose of more effectively selling web advertising (the modern version of television’s Nielsen Ratings I suppose except that Google is also the network, but you provide the content). Google makes all of their money from selling advertising, assuming we ignore the ridiculous sum (120 billion USD) it has raised by going public. So their many projects, while quite varied in their usefulness to the public, are really all designed to drive more traffic through their network. Search is the killer app for tracking what people are clicking on but Google’s search can only yield links that exist in the Google database, which while impressive, is only a small fraction of the web. So how can Google figure out what all the juicy tidbits that people are visiting on the web but which are not in their database? Introduce new services – hence the impressive diversification of products in their labs!
We are all Guinea Pigs in Google’s Labs: I know this because I have started squeaking when I hear the lid of my laptop open…
Take the Google Web Accelerator for example, the kind of product which other less laudable companies have oft touted in the software world’s version of late night infomercial. In the case of Google’s product it probably has real benefits to modem and other niche users (does anyone have any data on this?) but isn’t particularly interesting if you have broadband. It was first released in May, and pulled shortly afterwards due to privacy issues and major bugs, despite their claims of capacity issues. Then it was re-released in October and once again it was pulled due to a bug. And again they claimed that supporting all the folks falling over each other to accelerate their web experience was just too much. Now it is back again and I’ve been playing with it a bit. It is a useful tool for browsing Slashdot (combats the Slashdot effect when lots of users are requesting the same content) but in general it does not really provide adequate benefits for broadband users to justify the very real risks to both proper functioning of websites and to your security.
Secure is good. Hey wait, why did you take it away? Poohead!
A service which drew much less public notice was the public VPN “Google Secure Access” which was cut off recently and transformed from vpn.google.com to wifi.google.com. What was behind this move is still up for speculation but I can only assume a lot of individuals started using the service from home as a free anonymizer (encrypting traffic to hide it from their ISP and potentially from law enforcement). It was likely used primarily for porn, gambling and illegal content none of which Google would be particularly interested in and would likely consume too much of their resources. Had everyone used it as Google had hoped – with people getting a privacy boost while using unencrypted wifi hotspots in exchange for allowing Google to collect their economically valuable surfing habits – then I am sure we would continue to enjoy this excellent public service.
When playing with urchins don’t be surprised when you hurt your foot
In an industry-shaking move Google purchased web site analytics company Urchin who offer a respectable hosted analytics service. The Urchin product allows you to embed a snippet of code in all of your web pages that communicates statistics about your visitors’ habits to their database allowing them to provide useful reports back to you. Wait did I just say collect data about user’s surfing habits? And did I already mention that Google’s business model depends on such data? Suddenly it sounds like a no-brainer for Google to pick these guys up. This service used to cost thousands of dollars per year for small sites and easily tens of thousands for large sites – several competitors were priced in the ballpark (Webtrends, Livestats.biz, Clicktracks) – so it is presumably an expensive service to provision. And yet…Google recently started offering it for free as Google Analytics. Wow! Now we are starting to get a better picture of the true economic value of web traffic and it is impressive. Predictably Google had to put the brakes on this offering as their service was suffering under the massive load of all those new guinea pigs…I mean customers. When they claimed they needed to temporarily halt signups, this time I believed them! Pre-existing paying customers were experiencing horrible performance and even the process of setting up a new site was agonizing. Well what can you expect for free right? I hear that another disadvantage with Urchin is the many hours it can take for your traffic reports to get updated however I expect that this is also a load related problem. In any case I had been in the middle of signing up a few sites for this service and now this project has been indefinitely stalled thanks to Google’s lack of planning. Ouch. At least I’m not a paying customer.
Endgame – The Great Hosting Shakedown
All of Google’s services depend on a symmetry of economic usefulness for their success. We don’t pay Google any money (stock market aside) although we do give them valuable information in the form of browsing behaviour, and in return Google gives us access (temporary service suspensions aside) to a range of tools that have significant value to most of us.
One service which is not widely used allows webmasters to upload a sitemap which allows Google to provide more accurate search results. Another example of that mutual benefit in action. While I was thinking about trying this service it occurred to me that the cost of hosting has plummeted so wouldn’t it be even easier to get folks to tell Google what their site structure is like by having them upload their entire site to Google’s network where it can be hosted for free? Since Google wants all web requests to go through their network why not make sure that as much content as possible is on their network? It would probably be less expensive for them to provide than the analytics service, and web hosting is commoditized to an extent that it would take very little development effort. It should also be easier than getting the web accelerator to work properly and avoiding abuse of the secure access service. Google has been buying lots of network capacity and web load balancers so I would be surprised if Google Hosting doesn’t make an appearance in their labs soon.
Just don’t be surprised when you see:
“Thank you for your interest in Google Hosting!
Google Hosting has experienced extremely strong demand, and as a result, we have temporarily limited the number of new signups as we increase capacity. In the meantime, please submit your name and email address and we will notify you as soon as we are ready to add new accounts. Thank you for your patience.”
Also on the topic of Google: