Ryan Avent: Google’s trust problem

Ryan Avent has a very thoughtful essay on Google's trust problem. How likely are we to adopt new Google services if we are concerned they will go away? Excerpt (emphasis mine):


But as Ezra Klein notes, Google may face a trust issue. Translated into economese, Google has failed to consider the Lucas Critique: adoption behaviour for newly offered services will change in response to Google's observed penchant for cancelling beloved products.

Google has asked us to build our lives around it: to use its e-mail system (which, for many of us, is truly indispensible), its search engines, its maps, its calendars, its cloud-based apps and storage services, its video- and photo- hosting services, and on and on and on. It hasn't done this because we're its customers, it's worth remembering. We aren't; we're the products Google sells to its customers, the advertisers. Google wants us to use its services in ways that provide it with interesting and valuable information, and eyeballs. If a particular Google experiment isn't cutting it in that category, then Google may feel justified in axing it.

But that makes it increasingly difficult for Google to have success with new services. Why commit to using and coming to rely on something new if it might be yanked away at some future date? This is especially problematic for “social” apps that rely on network effects. Even a crummy social service may thrive if it obtains a critical mass. Yanking away services beloved by early adopters almost guarantees that critical masses can't be obtained: not, at any rate, without the provision of an incentive or commitment mechanism to protect the would-be users from the risk of losing a vital service.

There may be bigger implications still, however. As I said, Google has asked us to build our lives around it, and we have responded. This response entails a powerful self-reinforcement mechanism: both providers and users of information and other services change their behaviour as a result of the availability of a Google product. You can see this on a small scale with Reader. People design their websites and content based on the assumption that others, via an RSS reader, will come across and read that content in a certain way. And readers structure their reading habits, and ultimately their mental models of what information is available and where, based on the existence of this tool. The more people used Reader, the more attractive it was to have an RSS feed and to write posts in feed-friendly ways. And the more people provided RSS content and structured online interactions around the blogs that pass through RSS, the more attractive it became to be a part of that ecosystem. If you then pull away the product at the heart of that system, you end up causing significant disruption, assuming there aren't good alternatives available.

The issue becomes a bit more salient when you think about something like search. Many of us now operate under the assumption that if we want to find something we will be able to do so quickly and easily via Google search. If I want an idea for a unique gift for someone, I can put in related search terms and feel pretty confident that I'll get back store websites and blogs and Pinterest pages and newspaper stories and pictures all providing possible matches. That in hand, I can quickly comparison shop, again via search, and order online. And if I'm a retailer, I can count on precisely the same dynamic and will structure my business accordingly.

If I'm a researcher, I know I can quickly find relevant academic papers, data, newspaper accounts, expert analysis, and who knows what else related to an enormous range of topics, and I know that whatever research product I ultimately produce will be added to this bonanza. Once we all become comfortable with that state of affairs we quickly begin optimising the physical and digital resources around us. Encyclopaedias? Antiques. Book shelves and file cabinets? Who needs them? And once we all become comfortable with that, we begin rearranging our mental architecture. We stop memorising key data points and start learning how to ask the right questions. We begin to think differently. About lots of things. We stop keeping a mental model of the physical geography of the world around us, because why bother? We can call up an incredibly detailed and accurate map of the world, complete with satellite and street-level images, whenever we want. We stop remembering who said what when about what engagement on such-and-such a date, because we have fully archived email and calendar services for all of that. And we instead devote more mental energy to figuring out how to combine the wealth of information now at our hands into interesting things. Those interesting things might be blog posts or cat GIFs or novels or theories of the universe or personal relationships. The bottom line is that the more we all participate in this world, the more we come to depend on it. The more it becomes the world.


Good points, though I am puzzled by Ryan's “If you then pull away the product at the heart of that system”. I never regarded Reader as anything more than a convenient, widely-adopted sync service. But Ryan obviously read RSS feeds in Reader in a browser.

Personally, I think Reader is a very weak offering compared to the excellent clients available – especially for iOS.

What share of RSS eyeballs did Reader have?