Why I don’t rely on Google

Recently several otherwise tech-savvy friends have been perplexed that I don’t just use Google for everything. They explain that I could use Google Voice for my U.S. phone number, use Google Checkout for The Mathematician’s Dice, sync my contacts and calendars through GMail, and log in to many things on the web using their OpenID service. And they wonder why I suffer a bit of spam instead of using GMail for my primary email account.

I do use Google’s services, but I’m careful not to rely on them for anything critical. Why not? Because there are too many stories of people’s Google accounts getting shut down or disabled unexpectedly. Here are some:

It would be easy to dismiss any one of these stories as a fluke, or sour grapes, or user who didn’t follow the directions or actually did break Google’s rules. But it’s hard to dismiss all of them. And the common thread in all these tales is that they don’t provide any sort of customer service to users—just an automated help system that is no help when you account is shut down. And this points out why Google lacks customer service: it would be too expensive for them, because their average revenue per user is too low—around $30.

Why is Google’s average revenue per user too low to justify running customer service? Because their business is advertising. Services like GMail, Voice and Docs exist for two reasons: to hurt competitors by preventing more price-sensitive users from shelling out for MS Office, an iPhone, or the like; and to keep people in their ecosystem so that Google can sell them better ads. This is a perfectly legitimate business model.

But it means two things: first, that you are not valuable enough as an individual user for Google to provide you with any help if something goes wrong; and second, that if your interests and the interests of their advertisers are at odds, Google has a powerful incentive to choose the interests of its advertisers—its customers—over your interests. This idea was summed up well by this comment on Metafilter a few years ago:

If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.


The same holds true for Facebook, Twitter, and others. But Google is the only one providing services that people and businesses rely on every day. And if a service is critical to your business, or your day to day life, you’re better off paying a small amount to make sure a company’s interests are aligned with yours.