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A Steady Buzz of Changes

Is there time for Google to salvage its social network after a botched launch?

Since the troubled launch of Google’s new social network earlier this month, the company has introduced a flurry of changes in an effort to address user confusion and privacy concerns. Google says its engineers have been working nonstop to adjust features and incorporate user feedback. But the product, called Buzz, has already spurred criticism, a complaint to the FTC, and a lawsuit. While experts say there’s no way to undo the damage done by botched privacy controls in the first few days after launch, some believe the service still has a chance to redeem itself.

When Buzz launched on February 9, Google touted the power of its algorithms in particular. As Google’s official take on social networking, the service was designed to use powerful analysis to automatically select connections for users and show them the most interesting posts.

These features quickly came under fire when, for example, a woman who maintains an anonymous blog about surviving spousal rape and abuse found herself automatically followed on Buzz by her abusive ex-husband, his friends, and a group of people who regularly e-mailed her anonymous blog account (she set up those e-mails to forward to her personal account).

Google has since launched many changes geared toward giving users more privacy controls when they sign in to Buzz for the first time and clarifying who will see their posts and information. In the process, Google downgraded its autofollow feature to an “autosuggest,” and backpedaled on some of its original language about the power of automation.

“With Google Buzz, we wanted to make the getting started experience as quick and easy as possible, so that users wouldn’t have to manually peck out their social networks from scratch,” says Google spokeswoman Victoria Katsarou. She says Google thinks autosuggest “reaches a good balance between giving users more control over their experience and offering a smooth getting started process.”

Experts believe Google’s goal of populating the service on day one led it to misstep.

If Google had launched Buzz with lots of warnings about privacy and information about controls, people would not have wanted to use the system, says Joseph Bonneau, a University of Cambridge researcher who did a study last year that showed that social networks have strong incentives to bury the privacy settings they build.

But by burying these settings, Bonneau says, users were confused for the first 24 hours about who they were connected to and who would see their posts. “Confusion is the privacy problem,” he says.

While Google’s recent changes help, Bonneau notes that there’s no way to undo what was exposed in the first week. He says he wants to see companies such as Google and Facebook establish privacy review teams separate from the engineers who build products. These teams would review features before they are released.

Yahoo launched a social network very similar to Buzz as a part of its popular e-mail service more than a year ago, notes Jared Spool, founding principal of User Interface Engineering, a consulting firm based in North Andover, MA. But in Yahoo’s case, the network was opt-in and largely ignored.

Spool says Google’s recent experience with Buzz points to several big problems in social network usability that he would like to see the company work to solve. For example, Spool wonders whether even deeper analysis of user e-mail behavior might produce algorithms that could identify the level of intimacy of a relationship, or flag potentially worrisome connections.

He sees promise in the concept of a social network that could help users discover people they might like to follow–without violating user privacy.

Dana Chisnell, an independent researcher who runs the consulting firm UsabilityWorks, says that user experience research currently focuses mainly on mechanical tasks, such as whether users can figure out the process for adding friends. The case of Google Buzz illustrates that, particularly for social networks, it’s necessary to figure out the implications of each feature.

She notes that it’s very difficult to find a good population to do such testing. Google, for example, says it didn’t find problems with Buzz when it tested using 20,000 of its own employees.

Some see potential in the design of Google Buzz, despite the privacy concerns. Ben Bederson, an associate professor at the human-computer interaction lab at the University of Maryland, says that Buzz is a great attempt at creating “a single integrated hub that supports my communication activities.” This integration, along with the service’s support for longer posts and inline picture and video, solves some important social networking usability issues, he says.

However, Bederson believes Buzz loses in its poor integration with Facebook and Twitter. “There isn’t room for three major independent networks,” he says. If Buzz can solve some of the new usability issues it’s introduced since launch and get effective connections going with other popular networks, Bederson says, Buzz could still be very attractive to users.

Google says it’s working hard to improve Buzz based on user feedback, and that it’s open to receiving suggestions from privacy organizations. The company says it does not plan to remove Buzz from Gmail, though it has discussed setting up a separate, additional destination site for Buzz.

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