Jon Evans is a software engineer that sometimes writes for TechCrunch.  He has a piece today entitled Can Google Get Its Mojo Back? where he talks about the decline of Google…

Business Insider’s list of the 15 biggest tech flops of 2010 cited no fewer than four from Google: Buzz, Wave, Google TV, and the Nexus One. Bizarre errors have erupted in Google Maps. Many of its best engineers are leaving. Influential luminaries like Vivek Wadhwa, Jeff Atwood, Marco Arment and Paul Kedrosky (way ahead of the curve) say their core search service is much degraded from its glory years, and the numbers bear this out; after years of unassailable dominance, Google’s search-market share is diminishing—it dropped an eyebrow-raising 1.2% just from October to November—while Microsoft’s Bing, whose UI Google tried and embarrassingly failed to copy earlier this year, is on the rise.

Even their money fount, AdWords, is problematic. An illustrative anecdote: I recently experimented with a $100 free certificate for my own pet app, and found my ad got stuck “In Review” indefinitely. According to users on AdWords’ discussion boards, this is common, and the only way to fix it is to file a help request. I did, and the problem was soon repaired—but what happened to the speedy algorithmic solutions for which Google is famous?

The general tone on the AdWords forums is exactly like that on those devoted to the other Google service I use a lot, App Engine: users on both frequently complain about the way Google neglects and/or outright ignores them. I like App Engine a lot, but it’s prone to sporadic bursts of inexplicable behaviour, and some developers are abandoning it because of Google’s perceived reluctance or inability to fix its bugs and quirks.

He hits on a lot of good points but framing the problem as “Google getting something back” is a mistake in my opinion.  I think Google had a halo around them up until now which hid a flaw that’s always been there.  Namely their lack of a Customer-Centric Focus.  

Google rose to prominence on a Search Engine which isn’t really a consumer product.  It provides information to a consumer but it’s incidental information.  No one calls a Search Engine’s tech support because they can’t find something. 

So from the beginning Google’s culture wasn’t customer centric.

At the same time Google developed a philosophy that gained them a cult following.  Between making everything free and “doing no evil” Google managed to accumulate a group of fans who would defend them no matter what.   In doing so they insulated themselves from a lot of customer complaints because their early adopters were so in love with them. 

So they charged into the consumer market.  Development tools, Office Apps, Social Networking and so on.  Suddenly Google was in competition with customer centric companies like Microsoft but with virtually no support mechanisms to speak of. 

Google’s idea of support literally seems to be support forums.  Support forums their employees don’t seem to visit.

I remember one incident a while back when Google decided to strip Google Apps of its ability to edit the raw html of a file.  No warning or explanation was given.   The forums were flooded with questions and complaints (too many to have been missed by Google) and yet no answers ever came.  This is not a unique experience.  Look in any Google forum and you’ll see loads of support requests that simply go unanswered. 

This problem extends to features.  The problems with their search engine are hard to solve because there are too many out there for the company to find.  But if Google just had a mechanism to listen to their customers they could allow those customers to find the problems for them. 

Proof of this came very recently.  Jeff Atwood had a problem with people scraping his content and passing it off as their own.  These sites then used SEO to show up higher in the Google rankings.  But Mr. Atwood’s blog is read by Matt Cutts of Google so the problem was fixed in a matter of DAYS.  There’s no reason Google couldn’t do that for other customers.

No reason except the expense.

That’s where we get to the final part of this problem.  Google is a public company that’s been built around high margins.  Them acknowledging they need a support infrastructure now would be disastrous.  It would send their stock price tumbling downward and stunt their growth for years (which in turn would cost them even more valuable employees).

This puts Google between a rock and a hard place.  They either go on a massive hiring spree to build a support structure and sacrifice their incredible margins or they ignore the problem and allow their brand to continue deteriorating.  It’s not an easy choice to make.