Google's Biggest Flops

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No company is perfect, not even Google. Earlier this year, Google (Stock Quote: GOOG) decided to open its first ever online store so users could purchase the company’s Nexus One phone without having to go through a cell phone carrier. Google had high hopes that this site would provide more options for consumers and at the time, some speculated that Google was inching into Amazon’s (Stock Quote: AMZN) territory. But just five months after the idea was first announced, Google has shut down the store, all but admitting that it was a complete and utter failure.

"As with every innovation, some parts worked better than others," the Vice President of engineering wrote on Google’s blog, announcing their decision. And in truth, this sentiment has been part of Google’s philosophy all along. Unlike most companies, Google seems to genuinely relish the trial and error process that goes along with innovation. The company has its hand in seemingly every industry from mobile phones to social media, and is now looking to get into the television market. Google can supply broadband to communities and even has a division that is authorized to buy and sell energy.

More than that though, Google is known for turning out an endless series of Web tools, many of which have fundamentally altered the way users engage with the Internet. There are dozens of little-known “experiments” currently available on the Google Labs page. Google Transliteration promises to allow users to “type phonetically” and whatever you’ve entered will then be translated into a language of your choice. Then there’s Green Robot, an add-on for Gmail, which performs the all-important task of displaying robot icons next to the name of a person you may be chatting with online.

With all that innovation, it’s no surprise that Google experiences a flop once in a while. Of course, some are so skeptical of Google and eager to see it fail that they will even label their successes as failures. Case in point: One blogger actually claimed that Google Maps was a huge mistake because it can be used to “help terrorists with bad intentions do their strategic planning.” But you don’t have to look too hard to find examples of Google’s missteps. Their flawed experiment with the Nexus One store is in good company.

Google X

The intense rivalry between Google and Apple (Stock Quote: AAPL) is a relatively recent phenomenon, but there was one day in 2005 when Google stepped into Apple’s territory, and it was all because of a now-forgotten service they launched called Google X. This tool tinkered with Google’s famously empty homepage and added a series of icons that popped up above the search bar when the mouse hovered on it. Users could then click on and connect to all of Google’s other services. It’s a simple enough idea but ultimately a blatant rip off of the tool bar that appears at the bottom of the screen on Mac computers (something which Apple has actually patented.) Less than a day later, Google X vanished and was never heard from again.

Lively

In 2008, Google decided to tap into the craze surrounding Second Life, a virtual world, and create its own version called Lively. The plan for Lively was to spice up otherwise bland Web sites. According to Ars Technica, “The idea behind the product is that Web site owners could customize a virtual room and embed it on their site, allowing visitors (those visitors willing to install a Lively browser plug-in, at least) to socialize with something besides flat, text-based comments.” However, the final product was sloppy (it was apparently just a side project for developers) and more importantly, the idea of embedding a 3-D alternate reality into regular Web sites proved to be unpopular. So the feature was shut down after just five months.

Knol

Google intended Knol to be the site people would go to when they needed to look up something. Instead, your first instinct on seeing the word ‘Knol’ would probably be to type it in to Wikipedia. Knol functions much in the same way as Wikipedia, allowing users to search for and post detailed entires on any number of subjects from the Anatomy of the Brain to Car Leasing vs. Buying.

Unfortunately, users seemed less interested in this site than Wikipedia and the entries on the site are pretty much worthless. As Slate puts it, “Knol is a wasteland of such articles: text copied from elsewhere, outdated entries abandoned by their creators, self-promotion, spam, and a great many old college papers that people have dug up from their files.” Unlike the previous flops on the list, Knol still exists, but that doesn’t mean any less of a failure than the others.

Google Audio Ads

Google is undoubtedly one of the most successful advertisers in the business, thanks to its AdWords program, which earns the company billions each year for itself and other businesses.  But not all of their advertising ventures have been profitable.

In 2006, the company launched a feature called Audio Ads, which was intended to revitalize the radio advertising market by placing automated online ads into radio broadcasts. Not only did the company have high hopes for this project, but they also invested resources in it, with dozens of people working in the division. But not even Google can save radio.

This wasn’t Google’s only effort to sell ads offline. The company also had a Print Ads service that attempted to place advertisements in newspapers, but this feature was killed in early 2009.

Google Buzz

It pains me to say this, since I was a big fan of the tool when it first came out, but Buzz is a failure. Google Buzz was intended to work as a kind of middle ground between Twitter and Facebook. Users are able to follow friends, post updates, photos and articles they are reading. The biggest asset for Buzz is that it’s part of your Google account, which means you can theoretically check what your friends and family are doing while you catch up on your e-mail. On top of that, I’ve argued that while there may be a strong overlap between Buzz and other social networks, it’s possible that you could set Buzz up so that you only follow people you know and care about, rather than the acquaintances who may be following you on Twitter.

From the start though, Buzz encountered some serious blowback. Google has admitted that they rushed the tool and released it too soon. And when they did put it out in February, they made the mistake of automatically creating people’s accounts and determining who could follow who. This led to some serious privacy concerns and turned many users off right away. Even the name of the site proved controversial, as Yahoo (Stock Quote: YHOO) had its own social networking service called Buzz.

In the few months since the initial drama, Buzz has suffered a more serious problem - it’s too quiet. A report released last month found that 90% of Buzz posts are automatically generated from other accounts that are linked into Buzz. In other words, no one is choosing to update their account.

Google Web Accelerator

In 2005, Google unveiled a tool to make the Internet run faster for everyone by routing requests through Google’s machines and allowing users to access cached versions of popular sites, rather than waiting for the most up-to-date version to load. Google stated that Web Accelerator would ultimately save users several hours a month, but less than a week after it launched, Google shut the project down. At the time, the company claimed they had reached their “maximum capacity” of users for the service and needed to retool it. At the time, many speculated that it was really because of privacy concerns (a flaw allowed users to access private cached group pages and Google could also theoretically track what sites you visit). The tool did become available again, but users seemed largely disinterested in it, partly because it only really makes a difference if you have a modem connection, which is rare these days. Google Web Accelerator is now no longer available.

Fast-forward a few years and instead of saving users a few hours a month, Google recently caused us to lose nearly 5 million hours of work time by putting up an irresistible version of Pac Man on their homepage. Oh how far the company has come.

Check out our roundup of reasons why Google may be an evil company, despite their claims to the contrary.

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