Why Google's outage wasn't a complete failure

Why would an unprecedented Google-wide glitch not cause an ongoing uproar?

I noticed something interesting in the Google outage and its aftermath on Thursday. Google's sites, in case you were hiding in a cave yesterday, were unreachable around the world for a good hour and a half. Gmail, YouTube, Google News, even the google.com home page were inaccessible to scores of people.

Yet, despite the initial frustrations -- Twitter users dubbed the event #googlefail and rightly ranted for some time about the disruption -- there doesn't appear to be the same lasting hostility and call-to-arms that often follows such incidents. Heck, Gmail outages far more limited in scope have seemed to ruffle more feathers in the past.

Why, then, would an unprecedented Google-wide glitch not cause an ongoing uproar? I have a theory. And I think it's one many tech companies, Google included, would be wise to consider.

Google Outage: A Timeline

Thursday's Google outage started like most other service failures: People realized things weren't working. They realized the problem was limited to Google-based services. They realized they weren't the only ones experiencing the issues. (Officially, Google says 14 percent of its global userbase was affected. Based on personal conversations on Twitter, I can tell you people on all sides of the U.S. and in numerous other nations were left Googleless and confused.)

That, however, is where things took a different direction than what we've come to expect. When the problem was resolved at about 12:20 p.m. EDT, we were all still wondering what the hell was going on. And usually, that's where we're left.

Within about 20 minutes, though, Google made a statement: "We're aware some users are having trouble accessing some Google services. We're looking into it, and we'll update everyone soon." Nothing earth-shattering, but an slightly cracked-open door of communication from a company that usually keeps 57 padlocks on its virtual entryway.

An hour later, another statement came in: "The issue affecting some Google services has been resolved. We're sorry for the inconvenience, and we'll share more details soon." Still no full explanation -- but, in a surprising move, a sign of ongoing communiqué and a promise of information.

Here's where the good part comes in: Google actually kept the promise. With a couple of hours, representatives offered a full explanation of what happened. And an apology. And an assurance that steps were being taken to prevent a meltdown like that from ever happening again.

Talking Transparency

Now, I don't want to give the impression that I'm on a Google soapbox here -- typically, trying to get answers from that place is tougher than resisting regurgitation at the sight of Paris Hilton's face. Google is not known for its transparency or accessibility to anyone (ever tried to get someone from the company on the phone?). That's why I'm hoping it, and other major players we rely on for our online needs, will learn a lesson from what happened this week.

Google screwed up. No question about it. My morning was a mess because of its error, and countless other people were equally peeved. But the company actually communicated with us. They told us what was going on. They apologized and promised they were taking action. (Whether that action ends up being effective, to be fair, is yet to be seen -- but it's a start.)

Compare the whole thing to Gmail outages of the past, where often, no explanation has ever been given. Worse yet, compare it to Amazon's now-infamous gay book glitch from last month. That little mishap directly affected far fewer people than the Google outage, yet the outrage was enormous and anything but fast-fading.

Why the contrast? Consider the fact that Amazon avoided contact with the media and the public for a full 36 hours, then proceeded to release only wishy-washy, vaguely worded statements that didn't answer questions as to what actually had happened. When pressed for further details, the company's representatives went as far as directly ignore inquiries from me and other reporters, instead just reiterating their vaguely worded and rather nonsensical statement. (The phrase "ham-fisted," I can only hope, has now been permanently retired from the company's dictionary.)

Customer service in the online tech world has a long way to go, and Google is far from a model of perfection. But its steps this week moved in the right direction, and for a company shrouded in mystery, that's something I'm happy to see. I can only hope that Google, Amazon, and others notice what a difference it can make to treat their valued customers like valued customers -- and, little by little, move toward becoming even more open and honest with us all in the future.

Connect with JR Raphael on Twitter (@jr_raphael) or via his Web site, jrstart.com.

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JR Raphael

PC World (US online)
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