Google: The big baby that won't grow up

Google says it wants business adoption but won't support companies that need help. When will the grownups take over?

When Eric Schmidt stepped down as Google's CEO, the conventional wisdom was that founder Larry Page was ready to run the search giant without training wheels. "Page spent 10 years at the knee of the master, Eric Schmidt, and he was not only willing but able," said Intuit chairman Bill Campbell during a talk this week at the Demo Fall 2011 startup fest.

Maybe you'd better rethink that one, Bill. Google's cavalier treatment of small business, its unwillingness to move on privacy concerns until it's forced to, and its panic-driven handling of the $12.5 billion Motorola Mobility acquisition prove otherwise. Google still lacks adult supervision.

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Everyone makes mistakes, but the mark of maturity is the ability to learn from them. You may remember that when Google launched the Nexus One Android smartphone, one of the many mistakes it made was selling a complex consumer product with no provision for support. Maybe that wasn't surprising for a company that had never sold anything to consumers, though it was a surprise to everyone else. But that's how you learn. It turns out, though, that Google is making the exact same mistake in the way it runs the Places program. (You do a search, and Google produces a little map with icons and a bit of information about businesses in the area.)

Last week, the New York Times broke the story that unscrupulous competitors were going on to Places and signaling that a rival business was permanently closed, which could be fatal to that fully operational business. When I read that story, I wondered why the aggrieved businesses didn't simply call up someone at Google to get help. It turns out they can't. With a few exceptions, "there's just no way to reach Google when you have a problem with Places," Linda Buquet, a marketing consultant, tells me.

Google is hugely influential, and its technology has changed much of the world for the better. But no other company has its reach or its influence over day-to-day activities of billions of Web users. It simply has to stop acting like a hyperactive toddler set loose in a china shop.

You must use us, but no support for you
Small businesses have little choice about being on Places. "Google Places dominates the top of local search. And Google is going around the country, holding training sessions to promote it," says Buquet, who runs Catalyst eMarketing.

Businesses feel like they have to sign up or risk disappearing from customers' view. Even companies that are interested sometimes find that Google has added them to Places without asking, she says.

When the story about false labels on businesses appeared, Google said merchants can always click on the listing and say they're open. But actually removing the closed label takes a while, and all too often someone goes back and relabels the business as closed. Some merchants have gone through the effort multiple times. I asked a Google PR rep about the support issue, and all she would do is point me to a canned statement saying businesses can click to correct the error. She would not speak to the question of support. (By the way, that's a typical Google PR response: It's not just business customers who get no help.)

I know support is very expensive, especially for a company with millions and millions of users. But why not set up a separate support system just for Places or -- cheaper still -- simply remove flawed features? That would be a mature way to handle the issue.

Now Google is starting a travel search service. Google Flight Search lets users find and book air travel using Google's search engine. Too bad for you if some screwup needs to be fixed. I'd rather play golf in a thunderstorm than trust my travel plans to those bozos.

When in doubt, shovel money at the problem
As I've said a few times, Google's outlay of some $400,000 per patent in the Motorola Mobility acquisition was a shocking waste of money and an example of the absurdity of the mobile patent wars. What I didn't realize was how badly Google handled the acquisition; it's probably fair to say that Google was bidding against itself.

We know this because Google outlined the process in exquisite detail in a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. After months of meetings, Google offered Motorola $30 a share. Motorola rejected the offer. A few days later, Google came back with an offer of $37 a share, but get this: Hours later, before Motorola had even responded, Google upped the offer by another three bucks a share, raising the initial offer by $3 billion when no one else was bidding on the company. For good measure, it agreed to pay a $2.5 billion breakup fee in the event regulators kill the proposed merger.

Wow, do I have a beautiful bridge to sell you, Larry.

Google says it wants to develop new and deeper relationships with businesses. That's a great idea, but it means the grownups have to be in charge. You busy, Eric?

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here (Add a comment) so that all our readers can share them, or reach me at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net. Follow me on Twitter at BSnyderSF.

This article, "Google: The big baby that won't grow up," was originally published by InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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