A very common mistake entrepreneurs make is to assume that a feature is not necessary because it doesn’t have a lot of usage, thus it can be safely removed from the product. Sometimes that’s the case, but sometimes, not so much.
Google made a big mistake cancelling Google Reader that will have severe ripple effects to its empire. I know a lot has been written about it, but let me give you a different angle on it.
Microsoft Word, circa mid-90s
This is not my story, but a story of a friend who I worked with at Microsoft. He once told me Microsoft removed the “word count” feature on a Beta Preview version of Word it sent to journalists to review (I can’t recall if it was on purpose, a bug, or the feature was just more hidden). Microsoft knew about it but didn’t care because it had data that showed that feature was just minimally used.
You get the picture to what happen next. Journalists, because of the nature of their work, were obsessed about that one tiny feature. It wasn’t a critical feature that prevented them from doing their job, but it was a feature that made their life that much easier. According to this friend from Microsoft, the reviews of MS Word were awful and the flagship argument was that the new Word didn’t have a word count feature.
What happens here is simple. Decisions makers and influencers carry a much stronger weight in product decision than the average user. That’s pretty well known on the Enterprise world. You don’t sell MS Outlook by convincing employees of a big company that Outlook is great. You sell Outlook by convincing the CIO and the IT team responsible to evaluate options of email client. They care not only what their employees will use, but also about how easy it will be for them.
Three self-inflicted wounds
First, Google says that it “gets” social, but you can’t “get” social if you don’t get the concept of an influencer. By killing a product that was beloved and heavily used by most influencers, you start to alienate those folks. Killing a product like Picnik with tens of millions of users, might have less impact on the business than killing a product with less than a million users, where most of those users are influencers. The number of users alone is not a metric that should be used to decide which products live or die. You must, at a minimum, include a profit-per-unit-of-effort and the strategic value (the amplifier effect) of the product (and the users of that product). Loss leader is not a bad strategy. Actually, most products at Google are loss leaders.
Second, Google just indirectly wounded many of its products, like Feedburner (which they probably don’t give a shit about it anymore, but they don’t know how to kill it since all those links are out there and it can’t be replaced), but most importantly it wounded Blogger. Google didn’t figure out how to make Blogger into a better product. Tumblr and WordPress continue to grow and dominate the short-form publishing out there. What surprises me is that the more pages and more page-views on the web, the better it’s for Google who primary monetization mechanic is primarily driven by ads (and AdWords / AdSense combo).
Third, and lastly, Google is sending a strong signal to the market that it will have no mercy of killing whatever product it doesn’t think it’s going well. It just told users, professionals and enterprises that we all should not use any product from Google if requires long term commitment (not business-type commitment, but data and emotional commitment) unless we have a sense that’s going to succeed. Now, I have to be in the business of evaluating Google’s product long-term viability before I can commit. Sure, I’m pretty sure Gmail is not going away, but what about Google Talk and Google Wallet? What about Picassa or YouTube?
Oh, and I’m pissed with Google Reader going away. I used it 3-10 times a day to consume about 100+ feeds. It wasn’t the awesome product that I wish it could have been, but it was the best out there.
PS: Irony not lost this blog post is on Blogger and 2,000+ people might read it on Google Reader. Good bye you.