Second trip in the Dolomites. October 2019.

Dark patterns in Google products

July 2020

Google used to build products with a technological edge, and I admired them for that. Search replaced old school directories with page rank. Gmail was about unlimited space and no page refresh with AJAX.Chrome was way faster than any other browser thanks to V8. Google+ was.. well no.

Google was cool. Techies revolutionizing the web.

But recently I’ve noticed something. Business has taken the lead for good. There are two major points why I'm more and more annoyed by Google as a whole.

Dark patterns, dark patterns everywhere

It simply started when I had to uninstall Gmail from my phone. The app was not stellar nor bad, just average. But there was this very annoying thing. Every X times you tapped a link in the mail, Gmail would ask you to select what browser you would like to use: Do you want to use Safari, the native and already installed browser, or you would like to open the App Store, download Chrome, wait for it to install, go back to Gmail, and click again to open the link?

There was a checkbox to tick with the label, “Don’t ask me again”. But this checkbox is lying. Every X time, this popup would appear again and force you to tick the checkbox and tap “Yes, I want to use Safari, thanks”.

It might just be a minor annoyance, but it actually totally changed my mind about Google. I associated such dark patterns to weak companies. Companies that don’t respect their users, but are doing anything they can to push their products down people's throats. Such companies don’t care if their products are the best and make people's live's easier. They just care about themselves and their OKRs.

YouTube actually implemented this pattern too. I guess it’s working great and Google teams are sharing their tips and tricks to grow their user base.

Why suggest only Chrome? Let's add 'Google' too, people might click. Make sure to put Safari as the latest option too, so people have to read all the options before. This popup shows up every single time you click on a link.

Talking about YouTube, it used to be fun to browse videos. Now it’s a chore. When you launch the app, you have to pray to not get this full-screen popup asking you to subscribe to YouTube premium. Then it’s just an ad feed with some videos in between. You have ads in the feed, before the video, during the videos ,and after the video. No joke YouTube ads generated $15.15 billion in revenue in 2019. Again, it’s good for them. Google is just an ad company in the end.

You might think there is a contradiction here. If I don’t want ads, I could pay 16€/month and get YouTube ad-free. But I want more than an ad-free experience, I want privacy. I don’t have the evidence here, but I think we can assume that Google will still record my YouTube activity to refine my profile and display related ads somewhere else.

Oh, and they are really pushy about YouTube premium.

Let's have fun stacking dark patterns. What does 'Skip trial' mean? Will that charge your credit card directly? I actually didn't know but I knew for sure that '1 month free' was a slippery slope.

If I’m writing this, it’s because recently it went a bit too far. Those pushy tactics slipped in the corporate world and my day-to-day job. Video conference capabilities in the Google ecosystem has always been a mess. With Hangout, Meet, Allo, Duo and whatever flavor of the week, people are confused. And with the COVID crisis and Zoom skyrocketing its user base, Google saw a missed opportunity. They wanted their piece of the cake. Again, it doesn’t matter if people prefer to use Zoom instead of Meet. That’s irrelevant. They had to push Meet anyway.

So now in Gmail you have this annoying Meet widget in your left sidebar. It gets your attention by loading 3 seconds after the whole page has loaded. You can hide it, but it will appear again every time you refresh the page. Previously it kept your preferences. I can’t believe it’s a bug.

And what to say about this ridiculously big button in Google Agenda every time you want to book a meeting?

It looks like a desperate way to regain market share because they could not build something efficient and clearly positioned in the past 5 years. I’m sure this giant button helps them reach their OKRs, but it’s again more confusion and frustration for their users.

And finally, there is Google Search. They might have noticed that people automatically skip ads. So what to do? Well, reduce the difference between ads and organic results, obviously. I can imagine without effort the team congratulating themselves on the idea of going from the clear yellow badge showing that it’s an ad to the discrete black text. More free revenue, yay!

The never ending need of more private data

So the actual question is, why do people still use those products if they are annoying?

I think most people don’t notice or pay attention to those dark patterns. They are just slightly annoyed, because they are used to being annoyed by tech. Creepy ads and dark patterns everywhere is the new normal. And second, everything Google provides is free. And free is really hard to beat. Google, exactly like Facebook, is now a huge vacuum of personal data with free software and surveillance hardware being like soldiers going literally into people's homes to collect more and more data.

You can actually browse the web using only Google. You could write an email in Gmail with Chrome on your Chromebook with your Nest Wifi using the Google cable infrastructure. It’s not even a man-in-the-middle attack, it’s the ownership of the entire communication pipeline. It’s too much power for a single company. Google decides what you can access. With their algorithms, they also decide for you in which order you can consume content.

I’ve noticed that the tech community is more and more aware of this issue and has started to understand that Google might not be our best friend. It’s a company like any other company. Their mission is to maximize their profit by any means. The issue with Google, is that in order to do so they have to creep into our lives to know everything about us and control as many content platforms as possible just to show us the most “relevant” ads. We used to think that Facebook was the real threat, but Google is no different. They're just enjoying the benefits of a cool brand in people's mind.

Seeking and building alternatives

People are busy with their lives and see the tech as something too complicated or as a simple tool. We know that tech is more than that. Tech companies, because of their reach and ownership of the communication pipeline, have great responsibilities.

There is a market for Google privacy-focused alternatives. Mozilla, Fastmail, Apple or Fathom are companies which put privacy at the center of their products. They are not perfect, but at least they are trying. Those companies are asking money for their products and as a consequence are less likely to abuse their users' privacy.

I’ve seen people going back to Safari or Firefox. I don’t know if it’s the beginning of a more profound change or something that will stay marginal. But I believe as tech people, we have the responsibility to educate people around us.

Like we pushed people to use Chrome, we should push people to use less invasive solutions now.

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Crafted in 🇪🇺 by Julien De Coster