Google Just Doesn’t Get Community Management

I’m a Google fan.

Like a lot of people, I use their search engine several times a day. I keep my appointments with Google Calendar. I have an Android phone. I’ve always believed that Google is a smart company run by smart people.

But when it comes to community management, Google’s motto appears to be “I’m feeling lucky.”

To state the obvious, Google is a technology company. They put their faith in algorithms and data. But community management is about human relationships, not lines of code.

I was optimistic when Google+ Communities were rolled out. The features and functionality suggested that those behind the product understood what it takes to run an online community. The problem with Google+ Communities is that you need a Google+ profile to participate. And Google requires that you use your real name on your profile. While the requirement to use real names can be beneficial in some circumstances, it makes Google+ Communities unusable for many kinds of support and recovery discussion groups where people are understandably reluctant to be publicly identified.

One might argue that it’s a reasonable decision to forgo the benefits of anonymity in favor of the benefits of requiring the use of real names. Fair enough. But after a couple of interactions with Google this month, I’m convinced that Google just doesn’t get community management.

The first incident came after I was invited to participate in a Google webinar, or “Hangout,” on AdSense policies relating to user generated content. One of my professional responsibilities is to manage AdSense on a network of online communities, so I was delighted to get the invitation and eager to sign up. Unfortunately, the registration process was wildly confusing. In order to complete the process, I had to create a bogus Google+ account because my “real” Google+ account is associated with my personal email address, not my work address.

When I finally found my way to the Hangout page where I was supposed to register for the event, I saw a bunch of AdSense questions posted by various users. To be clear, the page didn’t solicit questions to be answered during the Hangout. These people had real questions about AdSense and they were looking for answers. None were forthcoming. I also found lots of spam.

Google had created a page where people could provide feedback, and then ignored it.

The second incident came when I needed some help using Google’s ad manager. I started exploring Google’s ad manager online community looking for answers. What I found were a few power users that did their best to answer questions, but very little in the way of help from Google itself. So far this month, I counted 118 questions asked and only 12 marked answered. None of the answers were provided by a Google employee. I asked my question six days ago and am still awaiting a response. I understand that managers in product support communities need to step back to give members a chance to help one another — it’s good for community building and enhances scalability. But other than a few sticky posts, Google employees were nowhere to be found. They didn’t just step back – they stepped out of the room.

Google spends a lot of time and money perfecting its core search product. I’m sure there are dozens of talented engineers working hard to make sure that when we use Google search, we’ll find what we’re looking for. I hope that someday, they’ll make more of an effort to make sure that visitors to Google communities find what they’re looking for, too.

Photo credit: Shawn Collins

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