Where Google Has Room for Improvement

Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

February 17, 2012

3 Min Read
Where Google Has Room for Improvement

In all my years as an Internet user, I’ve rarely been upset with Google. Sure, the company is probably amassing troves of my personal data, which I may one day regret, but that concern has traditionally been offset by how nicely Google’s Web apps have worked. Google’s offerings in many cases are still much better than those of Google’s competitors. But I’ve nonetheless been struck lately by how much Google seems to be glossing over basic usability principles.

Admittedly, my gripe with Google stems purely from personal experience. It could be that most other people like the way Google’s various Web apps have been evolving recently. Maybe I’m just a bizarre outlier who doesn’t fit into the categories of users to whom Google wants to appeal.

Where Google Needs Improvement

But that said, here’s a rundown of a few of the usability flaws that I’ve noticed in various Google tools — most of them of recent provenance, having been introduced through initiatives ostensibly aimed at enhancing Google software:

  • On Google Books, I can no longer jump to a specific page number. This seems ludicrous: one would think that among the most basic interface functionality should be an easy way of selecting a particular page. Apparently Google lacks “enough engineering resource” for stuff like this, however.

  • Also annoying about Google Books is that there’s no way to search a text when in fullscreen mode. That’s less of a problem than the page-selection issue, but it’s still troublesome.

  • I used to love Google Maps and was always perplexed that anyone continued to use MapQuest after the 1990s, but lately I’ve been questioning that perspective. Lots of things about the Google Maps interface are frustrating, including the autocomplete functionality, which interferes severely with my own input. Google Maps also likes to try to figure out where I am automatically, which would be a cool feature if it worked; instead, when I’m in Paris it gets my location wrong by about a mile, and when I’m in upstate New York it hasn’t the faintest idea where I am — yet it still tries to guess, which is a waste of everyone’s time.

  • Google Maps decides whether to display results in miles or kilometers based on which country I’m in. Since I’m an American fond of byzantine and arbitrary measurement systems, I’d rather see everything in miles, but there’s no way to set this preference permanently.

  • A minor but annoying flaw in Google Docs: whenever I use the Web interface to search a document for a particular string, it tells me how many matches there are but, unlike virtually every other “find” tool in the world, does not automatically jump to the first one. That’s just silly.

  • Last but not least, there’s Gmail, which has by now become a sine qua non of Google’s existence. It generally works pretty well — and sure beats most offline email clients — but the recent overhaul left me less than thrilled on a number of points. The new interface eats up more valuable screen space, its icons don’t always clearly communicate the functionality of the buttons that they’re on and Gmail search functionality is still shockingly primitive given that its developer also runs one of the world’s largest search engines.

To be sure, none of these issues makes Google’s software unusable, and its offerings in many cases are still much better than those of Google’s competitors. But basic usability principles need improvement. Then again, maybe it’s just me.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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