I will be presenting in the TechTalk series at Google tomorrow.
Google TechTalks are designed to disseminate a wide spectrum of views on topics including Current Affairs, Science, Medicine, Engineering, Business, Humanities, Law, Entertainment, and the Arts.
Interesting list, where do I fit in?
The title of my talk is “Beyond Gigs of Log Data: The Social Aspects of Internet Use”. I will be talking about the importance of social science research in gaining a better understanding of how and why people use digital media. That is, while companies like Google may have unbelievable amounts of information about their users based on logs of their online actions, I argue that there are other factors difficult to capture in logs that are also important to understanding how and why people use various online services the way that they do.
From Google’s perspective, I think one puzzle concerns the following. Despite being a media darling and getting a ton of positive press coverage over the years, other than search and ads, the company hasn’t gained significant market share in any realm. Even in search, how is it that they are only used by about half of all searchers with the kind of attention they get? (I actually have answers to this, my point here is that some people don’t seem to take a sufficiently nuanced approach to how the company’s products are doing.) And of course, search and ads are very important areas, but if Google thought that was enough, the company wouldn’t be expanding to other realms. It is expanding, but not very successfully.
Google Maps* and GMail** may be great products – I’ll be the first to admit it -, but again, the company’s market share is small compared to some of its big competitors. Sure, these are relatively recent entrants, but is there any evidence of significant diffusion to new users? Of course, if we really want to hit the bottom of the barrel, we can look at Google Checkout or the now defunct Google Answers.
My point is that simply having automated data about your own users’ actions isn’t going to tell you that much about why others are not your users, and why users of some of your services aren’t embracing others of your products. Doing so is like estimating public opinion about a Republican political candidate by going to a Young Republicans meeting or estimating public opinion about global warming by observing an environmental meeting.
Hopefully Google understands all this and works with people in this realm. I know for sure that they do some interesting work in user experience. But a bit more attention in this area than is apparent could be valuable.
[*] Based on some data I collected last year about a diverse group of college students’ Internet uses (N=1,336) here are some figures: Mapquest: 85% use it sometimes or often; Google Maps: 39% use it sometimes or often (an additional 33% have tried it, but don’t use it); Yahoo! Maps: 34% use it sometimes or often. This population is much more wired (more time online to explore things, easy access) than the general user population so figures here are likely to be higher than what one would find with a more representative sample.
[**] Based on some data I collected last year about a diverse group of college students’ Internet uses (N=1,336) here are some figures: Yahoo! Mail: 54%; Hotmail: 31%; AOL Mail: 19%; GMail: 12%. This population is much more wired (more time online to explore things, easy access) than the general user population so figures here are likely to be higher than what one would find with a more representative sample.