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Weekly Column

America's Pastime: Google Responds to Last Week's Column, but Fails to Appreciate the Difference Between Home Run Hitters and Hot Dog Vendors

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

One of my heroes is a guy named Jeff Angus, who lives in Seattle. Jeff's interests are wider than most. He was an early Microsoft employee, a sports writer, a Congressional aid, a cab driver, and so of course, he works today as a management consultant. Jeff is fiercely intellectual to the point where it can be exhausting to even speak with him, though every one of those discussions has been rewarding, at least for me. I value Jeff's judgment, too, with the sole exception of his decision one year to drive to Comdex. All this is prelude to a plug for Jeff's new book, Management by Baseball, which is a bunch of great sports stories you've never heard used to effortlessly explain how to run a business, pretty much any business. The book is, I believe, unique in its genre and well worth reading. It sure taught me a lot, and you can learn more about Management by Baseball behind one of this week's links.

It was Casey Stengel, according to Jeff, who said that baseball is a talent business and the manager's job is acquiring, nurturing, inspiring, and ultimately disposing of that talent. The same is true in most businesses today, where the heaviest lifting is often done by knowledge workers, and individual contributors can make or break the enterprise. The only significant difference between a baseball team and the typical IT business is that baseball has statistics, which make measuring success a lot simpler. Whether a corporate executive is effective or not is usually open to wide interpretation, whether you won the World Series is not.

Preparing for this second column on Google I turned to Jeff's book for inspiration, and found it in a peculiar form that you'll shortly understand.

Last week, you may recall, I wrote about Mario Fantoni having trouble getting a refund from Google for AdWords click fraud, and about Luis Dias, whose AdWords costs were dramatically (and he thought unfairly) rising because not many people were actively looking for equation editors. In the week since that column appeared, I heard from several hundred readers, many of whom wanted to point out that LaTeX (not LaTex as I called it) was written originally by Leslie Lamport and not Don Knuth. The rest all had comments to share about Google or were representing Google, itself. I heard a LOT from Google.

The Google reps (by this time I had been punted from engineering to PR) thought I was completely mistaken in my representation of Mario's click fraud situation, where I said he had waited seven weeks for a refund of more than $3,000. After a conference call with Mario and three Googlers to go over his account they pointed out that Mario's costs had risen significantly because he had increased the number of keywords in his campaign, the daily budget, and the maximum price per word, so if his costs rose by 300-plus percent between January and February, it was Mario's own doing, not Google's. And they HAD given Mario a click fraud refund of $115, which he had overlooked. Fair enough.

But Mario's concern about click fraud was based not on his Google bill as much as on his own web statistics, which are compiled by web-stat.com. The actual statistics are among this week's links, but here is the summary that caught Mario's eye:

Visitor Sessions per Month
Jan 06 = 386 visits (Google account active = $555.99)
Feb 06 = 328 visits (Google account active = $1,893.26)
Mar 06 = 348 visits (Google account paused)
Apr 06 = 410 visits (Google account paused)
May 06 = 916 visits (Google account active = $751.03)

When Mario saw that his monthly AdWord cost had more than tripled from January to February, but his number of visitor sessions had actually DECLINED, he suspected click fraud. When he paused his AdWord account completely for two months and his number of visitor sessions edged UP it was even more surprising.

What's going on here? Google doubts Mario's numbers, but not their own. Mario sees no reason to doubt his numbers, which were compiled by a neutral third party. I have no idea who is right or wrong, and just throw it out to you as a curiosity.

Google was clearly annoyed by my column last week, and well, they should be because it generated a ton of e-mail from disgruntled AdWords and AdSense users they would probably rather had not heard from. Any system that involves billions of dollars and is used by millions of people will have disgruntled users. It doesn't matter how good it is, some people will always complain. So the fact that I received more than 200 complaints doesn't, itself, mean that much. But the nature of those complaints was interesting, since most of them had to do with customer service. And that brings us back to Casey Stengel.

Google, as a developer of very high technology on a huge scale, is very much a talent company. Individual programmers are responsible for many of Google's most important components. The outfit is known for hiring the best and the brightest, and their hiring process is among the most difficult and mysterious for those who successfully complete it. The mystique of Google is built entirely around this combination of great people and great secrecy. Of the people I know at Google, for example, the only one whose actual job I know is Vint Cerf, and that's because it appears that Vint's job is to be Vint. Otherwise, I have no idea what my Google friends do at work.

Larry Page and Sergy Brin, but most importantly CEO Eric Schmidt (well, I guess I know what HIS job is) have created a corporate culture in which they feel comfortable. For Larry and Sergy, it is collegial, for Eric it brings all the best parts of Sun Microsystems (that is the software) without the hardware or the big sales organization. There is nothing wrong with any of this. The problem is that while Google is a talent business, customer service ISN'T.

Customer service isn't a program to be optimized or a function where one genius can do the work of 20. Customer service scales linearly, and any attempt to alter that usually is accompanied by a degradation in service. So Google has customer service reps madly cutting and pasting boilerplate e-mails, but I can tell you the boilerplate often doesn't cover the required material in a useful way, and beyond that boilerplate there is nothing -- well, at least nothing we are allowed to know about. It turns out that there ARE ways to escalate through Google customer service, but you pretty much have to know where you are going because they won't tell you.

To the typical disgruntled Google customer, it looks like you can contest your bill, but not to any third party, just back to Google. Beyond that, if there is a credit card involved you can take action through the card company or you can go to court, which is a huge leap that most people aren't willing to take, so they don't, and Google wins.

It's not that there are so many people mad at Google, but that the people who ARE mad tend to feel they have no recourse. And it appears to me that much of this can be attributed to Google's lack of proper attention to customer service and simply explaining better both their services and customer options.

Reading this, Google will fall back on statistics, where they feel most comfortable. Their user satisfaction numbers are fine, they'll say. Well, I ran customer support for a $1 billion high tech company years ago, back when $1 billion was a lot more money than it is today, and I can tell you there is more to this problem than statistics can reveal.

And it isn't just AdWords customers who are frustrated. Here's the view of Google from the third-party developer perspective: "I have been the lead developer and architect at companies that offer automated bid management and optimization of keyword ad campaigns at Google and other search engines. In both cases, interaction with Google was, far and away, the most difficult problem to solve. Not only do they not eliminate some fraudulent clicks that were fairly easy to detect, they are absolutely impossible to actually have a business relationship with. Even when managing campaigns that totaled close to $1 million in revenue every month, getting an actual answer out of Google for ANYTHING was usually a matter of weeks, and often required walking down the street and actually entering the Google offices unannounced to 'chat' with various friends who work there and who were sat fairly close to our account manager. I've never been convinced that it is a culture of secrecy so much as it is a culture of arrogance. They are so convinced of their superiority over there that they honestly don't seem to believe you when you point out their mistakes, so they utterly fail to act."

None of my friends at Google are arrogant, not one. But that doesn't mean the COMPANY doesn't appear to be so.

Google kept explaining to me this week what an inconvenience it was for them having to answer my questions, yet doing so probably saved them many customer support calls as I work through this morass on your behalf.

What Google is failing to remember is that when your entire focus is on hitting home runs, somebody still has to sell the hot dogs.

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