Google needs to stop treating support like it’s an add-on feature

Google, I think I’m over you.

Nonprofit Salesforce Practitioners (NPSF) is a 6 year-old Google Group now with over 1700 members, averaging around 300 messages a month. I’ve been co-moderator of the group since 2009. Only requirement for membership is that you have a connection in some way to nonprofits using Salesforce. User, administrator, vendor, consultant. Doesn’t matter. Even though I work for Convio, Common Ground gets no special treatment. The group is completely independent. It’s a fantastic, friendly group so my co-moderator duties are mostly around approving join requests by new members. We have the group set so topics are public, but only members can post and membership has to be approved to avoid spam.

About a year ago I stopped getting moderator email…to a @gmail.com address, no less. I still get email for other groups, just not NPSF. I looked in every setting. I filled out a form reporting a problem. Nothing. Google is switching Groups to a new user interface, which frankly I do not like. Every time I log in to the old interface to accept new users I was nagged in a bar at the top to switch to the new UI. Yesterday, I clicked the link in the bar thinking it would take me to an information page but in fact brought me to the new UI. Big. Mistake.

While in the new UI I noticed a setting along the lines of “opt-in to receive email from Google about Google Groups.” Thinking this might solve my email issue, I changed the “No” to “Yes” and hit Save. Big. Mistake.

On my next click I was locked out of the group!

I switched back to old UI. No difference. When I tried to access the group from any link, I was told I was not a member and should request entry. Everyone who was a member of NPSF saw this. Email to the group worked somewhat. And the group was still listed under members’ “My Groups” but the group itself was inaccessible. Clearly, this was something that could only be fixed behind-the-scenes by a real, live human.

I started looking for the Report Problem link or the Groups user-to-user forum to get some attention on this. Nothing. Gone. Just a bunch of lame troubleshooting articles that I couldn’t use because they all required actually getting to the group. Quietly, Google removed the very last remnant of human support for the free Google Groups.

The group is fixed now. How? I sent out pleas for help on Twitter and Google+. A list member read my plight on Google+ and circled in his cousin who works for Google in a completely different area. That kind soul managed to find someone at Google who could go in and fix it.

Using social media to find someone who knows someone who may know a guy is not customer support. Google Groups is free. I get that. But I could list 100 other free services where the developers stand behind their work and will address an issue that is entirely out of the users’ control, as this was. I’m writing this post in WordPress.com, a free service. But if my blog vanished tomorrow I know I could get help directly from Automattic. Free/Freemium is a business model. It’s not an excuse.

This wasn’t just a minor inconvenience for me. This affected 1700 other people as well. Worse, I know I was able to report a problem with Google Groups directly to Google in the past and access a monitored user forum, and now that option is gone. Providing direct support for a broken service is not a feature.

Google is putting all their attention in to Google+ these days, but truth is if that disappeared tomorrow I would shrug and move on. I’ve already been burned by Android. I still use Gmail and Google Voice. The nonprofit synagogue I volunteer for uses Google Apps. I’m questioning my choices and considering alternatives. Google doesn’t care, and that bothers me too.

Must be a lot easier to build a service for millions of people when you don’t have to put that much attention into being directly accountable to users for issues with the service. Slap a “beta” on it and/or rely on the greater community to do the support work for you. Not a model I trust very much these days. Do you?

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