Michele Neylon was once very happy with Urchin Software Corp., which provides a service to analyze Web site traffic.
But ever since search giant Google Inc. bought Urchin in March, hes changed his tune. His problem is with Googles customer service.
“If you choose to deal with Urchin in the Google era, you will not get any personal attention and will have no indication of who you are actually dealing with. For all I know, all my e-mails could be answered by a computer,” said the managing director of Blacknight Internet Solutions Ltd., a Web hosting and domain registrar.
“Everybody loves Google. Google can do no wrong. I would disagree.”
Since its launch in 1995, Google Inc. has built up a 400 million-plus customer following that arguably has the same level of endearment as the infamously-smitten Apple Computer devotees.
But the honeymoon is clearly now ending. An uncharacteristically high level of frustration about Google, and more specifically its customer service, has been boiling away for months, according to online rants, Google customer surveys and several recent interviews with Google users.
Googles apparent struggle to control even minor glitches illustrates a bigger problem. Intuitive Web design, sharply written instructions and automated efforts that seem to comprise most of Googles customer service are no longer enough to satisfy customers.
Gripes are coming from the most casual of Google customers on up to the corporations buying Googles search hardware for their computer networks.
For example, a search vendor fumed in June that, “if your company was worth $70 billion, would you have an automated message answer the front-desk phone number, or have a live human take the message?”
He had just called Google Australias office with an urgent request, then had to leave a message in a general voice mailbox.
In October, businesses relying on a Google feature to search mail order catalogs were told, via e-mail, that listings wont be updated possibly for months.
“Im losing business, and all I get from Google is an e-mail? Sheesh,” said Peter Johen, a New Jersey-based operator of shopping Web sites.
Consumers of Google Analytics, the name for the Urchin Web features, in November boiled over after a rush of customers overwhelmed the feature.
These are not isolated incidents. The Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization dubbed Googles customer service “worse than bad” after a recent survey of companies advertising on the Internet.
Well-known media analyst Jack Myers annual survey of advertising customer satisfaction routinely finds that advertisers arent entirely happy with Googles customer service.
David Fischer, director of Adwords Sales and Operations at Google, said that, overall, Googles customers are very satisfied.
“But were not at 100 percent, which is our goal,” Fischer added. “We take our relationship with customers very, very seriously. We track and benchmark ourselves constantly.”
Is Google Stretched Too
In many ways, Googles customer service is being stretched thin as a result of its own enormous success.
It was never one for customer service to begin with. It didnt need to be. In its earliest days, there really was no need thanks to a downright anorexic Web site leaving little doubt how Google operated.
Googles front page now leads to an increasingly sophisticated array of features that require more Internet savvy than an average user might normally have.
Its commonly-held that the more complex the feature, the more people are going to be in need of help, despite Googles already-storied talents at highly intuitive user interfaces.
Perhaps even more importantly, Google is expanding way beyond just providing free, ad-sponsored Internet search. In so doing, it is taking on more demanding customers.
Google is mainly used to dealing with companies taking out ads on Google Web pages. While the ads dont cost that much, they have added up to billions in revenues every year.
But here come the big ticket items, and their higher level of customer service expectations. Google now sells networking hardware to trick out corporate computer intranets, and the most expensive have a five figure price tag.
According to various sources, Googles likely to offer an array of other more mainstream commercial services in the near future, thus forcing even more pressure on its customer service.
These may include desktop software, and a retailing feature to grow out of Google Base, Googles free classified ad listing Web site.
Google has also reserved the right to start charging for access to what is now a free, citywide Wi-Fi network that it is building in Mountain View, Calif.
Google has even hinted at an Expedia-like travel planning and price comparison offering.
So just what does Google do for customer service?
Googles audience is too large and too widespread to allow for dealing personally with each complaint. So the company created largely e-mail based system that relies, it appears, on first learning of breakdowns, glitches and other problems from customers, then acting upon the information.
This mechanism, commonly used by large Internet-based companies, does work. For instance, it helped Google learn of a recent glitch in its Google Base classified listings service that created a flood of porn advertisements in search results.
Also, like much of the business that companies do on the Internet, a lot of Googles customer service is done via e-mails rather than in person.
The e-mail responses, though, “can be a bit frustrating when the response is too generic or when the customer service representative accidentally selects the wrong form letter response,” search commentator John Battelle notes.
If a more personal response is necessary, Google tends to use teams of customer service reps, rather than assigning just one to the issue. It may help with the work load, but Battelle opines that it “probably exaggerates some of the discontent.”
Googles Fischer, in an interview Friday, said its customer service operates on a kind of sliding scale of manpower.
Frequently asked questions sections, written instructions and other explanatory material available online is meant to sate inquiries about Googles free Internet search features.
Advertisers, Googles main source of revenue, get more interaction depending on their volume of ads. Smaller advertisers, the one-timers, must contend with e-mail or online help resources. Larger advertisers get phone support or other live help, while Googles biggest accounts have their own teams of Google employees working directly with them.
Fischer would not disclose how many actual customer service reps Google employs, nor the number of customer inquiries or complaints handled via e-mail versus over the phone with a Google employee.
But whether it agrees with its customers or not, Google is now taking strides to improve the situation.
For one, it has begun an experiment in London dubbed “Google Space” to get customer feedback, which is one way to improve its flagging customer service efforts.
At kiosks Google has set up at Londons Heathrow Airport, Google gives unfettered Internet access in return for face-to-face feedback.
“Its enlightening in that weve been learning tons about how to make our products more useful,” Andy Ku, International Product Marketing Manager wrote on Googles official blog in mid-December.
The search giant is apparently also planning to devote some space to additional customer service reps within the Googleplex, as its dubbed, which is a proposed million-square-foot Google campus at the NASA Ames Research Center that Google has designs on building.
But despite all the efforts, the present state of Google customer service is clearly not enough, say industry insiders, competitors and—judging by the firestorm of protest on Internet forums—Googles own customers.
To be sure, Googles customer service does have many fans. But for every “Tony” and his positive experience about exchanging a Google lava lap (“Id go with a nice big 10 on the customer service part” he wrote in an e-mail), there are 10 others frustrated by being stuck in a world of automated responses, script-following customer service reps and long delays between communications.
“Google customer service? Thats an oxymoron,” said one frustrated Googleite, requesting anonymity so as not to damage her relationship with Google.
Editors Note: This story was updated to include comments and information from a Google representative.