Why isn’t anyone talking about Google’s spam problem?

Sometimes when I’m searching for a particular product or service, the most frustrating thing is the way Google brings up mostly things to purchase.  For example, recently I knew that a direct flight between Sydney and New York used to exist, and wanted to find out some information about it.

These are the top results:

  1. Cheap Flights to New York , USA from Sydney

    Compare cheap flights to New York , USA from Sydney , Australia with Airfares Flights.
    www.airfaresflights.com.au/flights/Sydney/NewYork-NYC/ – 154k – CachedSimilar pagesNote this

  2. Cheap Flights to New York JFK , USA from Sydney

    Search Sydney to New York JFK Flights. Search More Options Below (searches may not include deals above). Sydney to New York JFK Air Travel
    www.airfaresflights.com.au/flights/Sydney/New_York-JFK/ – 50k – CachedSimilar pagesNote this

  3. Flights New+york Sydney

    Flight from New+york to Sydney from 453 euros. Search every airline including low cost. Return One way Direct flights only Main airports only
    www.edreams.com/flights/new+yorksydney/ – 21k – CachedSimilar pagesNote this

  4. Flights Sydney: Cheap flights to Sydney, eDreams

    Flights New YorkSydney, 1 November 2008, 453€, United Airlines, John F Kennedy Intl Airport, ….. Direct flights only Main airports only. About eDreams
    www.edreams.com/flights/flights-to-sydney/ – 68k – CachedSimilar pagesNote this

To cut through this I like to use Google Blog Search, where I can usually find some helpful blogger who is talking about the concept I’m interested in.  However sometimes, like this occasion where I’m essentially searching for old news, Google Blog Search fails to remove the cruft, as it tends to give an inordinate amount of weight to more recent posts:

European and Asian Stocks Fall Sharply

8 hours ago by Jack Kelly
Total, the French oil company, slipped 4.5 percent on heavy volume, as oil futures for November delivery on the New York Mercantile Exchange fell as much as $3.92 to $89.96 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
CompliancEX – http://compliancex.typepad.com/compliancex/
[ More results from CompliancEX ]

Stocks Fall Sharply on Credit Concerns

5 hours ago by chrisy58
New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/07/business/07markets.html?_r=1&hp&oref=slogin. October 6, 2008. The selling on Wall Street began at the opening bell on Monday and only intensified as the morning went on.
Chrisy58’s Weblog – http://chrisy58.wordpress.com/

Credit Crisis Drives Stocks Down Sharply2 hours ago by Ricardo Valenzuela
Crude oil was trading just over $89 a barrel in New York after 2 pm. President Bush made an unscheduled stop on Monday morning to speak about the crisis with owners of small businesses in San Antonio — and the television cameras that
INTERMEX POWER – http://intermexfreemarket.blogspot.com/

As such, one of my most often used Google sites is Google Groups — its long-term archiving and generally high quality results combined with a more traditional Google search algorithm mean I can usually find very specific discussions I’m looking for.  For example, in the past I’ve used it for finding out people’s experience with getting a green card, sourcing older tech support, or travel experiences.  Lately though, Google Groups has been completely broken.  Here are the results for my search:

Direct Flights Nassau To New York Group: obs27rruhuvtene

auwwb…@dipnoi.az.pl obs27rruhuvtene *Direct Flights Nassau To New
York* <http://sebj2o8a3l.airlinetickets24.info/?i=30091017&data=airline+ticket>
Direct Flights Nassau To New York Flights New York Dublin <http://groups.google.
com/group/obs27rruhuvtene/web/flightsnewyork-dublin>, Flights Sydney To New York
Sep 16 by auwwb…@dipnoi.az.pl

Direct Flights New York Group: skfea3bmsss

mvzdilis…@anosmia.az.pl skfea3bmsss *Direct Flights New York* <http://0vcz7v.
airlinetickets24.info/?i=30091020&data=airline+ticket> Direct Flights New York
Larnaca cheap flights, Wholesale cheap airline tickets, Cheap flights from
cardiff to majorca, Airline tickets bid, Cheap flights from brisbane to sydney,
Sep 19 by mvzdilis…@anosmia.az.pl

Cheap Flights From Sydney To Aukland Group: Data Access rodeo1a

Amsterdam 59.00 New York 179.00 Bangkok 389.00 Caribbean 299.00 Sydney 639.00
Flights Sydney Auckland Compare and book Cheap FlightFlights Sydney Auckland
Sydney.Cheap Flights to Sydney Australia from UK Airports TRAVELBAGTravelbag
provides cheap flights to Sydney flights from London direct flights Sydney.to

Apr 24 by susannabatchelorb8b…@gmail.com

It seems like Google has given access to creating groups to anyone with a Google account.  This, combined with the long broken Google CAPTCHA means it is getting completely clogged up.  I went 250 pages in (which in itself surprised me, as you can only go 100 pages using normal Google search) and there it was still.

So I tried a few other searches I’ve done lately.

Roomba battery? Broken.

Olympic games? Partly broken.

Travel to Ghent? Broken.

This one probably isn’t fair.

Anyway, there certainly is a lot of crap in there.

I’ve been noticing how useless Groups has been for several months now and assumed Google would do the usual thing and fix it up pretty fast.  I just checked and the last mention of Groups on the official Google blog was in January 2007 when this feature was taken out of beta, meaning it’s a problem wasn’t fixed in the 18 months it was in beta.

I heard one of the reasons why PicasaWeb limits a user’s space (as opposed to Flickr’s unlimited paid service, a sore point I won’t discuss now) is to “prevent spam” — if they can choose to fundamentally cripple a product in their fight against spam, why not fix one that is broken by spam?

Update: Apparently even more spam issues at hand with Google Groups.

Spamming users

One of the great things about Australia is we have a very strong department in the government called the ACCC.  The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission does a great job of keeping things fair in Australia between businesses and consumers.  While this can be seen as hampering free trade and an open market, they actually do a great job of keeping a “treat people fairly” mentality prevalent, and in practice there is great competition in Australia.

The ACCC help support other branches of government such as the Australian Communications and Media Authority with things like the 2003 Spam Act.  As per the ACCC, “Under the Spam Act it is illegal to send, or cause to be sent, ‘unsolicited commercial electronic messages’ that have an Australian link.”

What this means is even if you have a prior business relationship, if you haven’t explicitly stated “send me emails about stuff”, businesses are in breach of the act if they send you anything to do with a commercial site at all.

Since moving to the US I’ve noticed that on almost every site I use, if I give my email address I can expect to start receiving a decent amount of crap from that company.  For a lot of businesses it ends up losing them income in the long run by alienating power users who would otherwise use word-of-mouth to promote that business.

Lately I’ve noticed something somewhat sinister.  I’ve been trying to unsubscribe from websites and regardless of what I do, I remain on the lists.  Sometimes it’s because the company obfuscates the removal process (hi Mint – by the way, thanks for sending super-confidential details via email without asking me first!  Shame your site is so pretty, so I forgive you), but I’ve seen several examples of late where the unsubscribe is just plain broken.

So let me name and shame some people.

The worst two:

Lee Jeans is a shocker.  Unsubscribe link that does nothing at all.  I had to add them to a deletion filter, as numerous emails to members of staff did nothing to resolve this.  Even mention of the Spam Act did nothing to help.

JobFox.  Ahh, JobFox.  I tried everything I could to unsubscribe from JobFox.  I edited all my preferences, I clicked on links, I emailed the helpdesk, and then I even emailed individual members of their team.  Nothing.  Also added to the deletion queue.

Then there are a whole bunch of smaller sites (Hi DavinciTeam).  Thankfully some startups at least listen when you write to them.  I got a very impressive response from Mixx via the Director of Product Management, Will Kern:

I wanted to let you know that this has been taken care of.  You will no longer receive marketing e-mails from Mixx.  Let me know if there is anything else I can help you with.

Me: Thanks very much – and thanks for letting me know too (and on a Saturday no less!).

Will: You are most welcome!  Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, who keeps track ;-)

Very pleasant and prompt.  You guys are definitely back in my good books!

Workology also had a similar bug, but again, I got a prompt, helpful response which was great.

Finally, I wish I could remember the name of the site who had an unsubscribe link to nowhere.  Checking back a couple of weeks later and there was a page but with no options on it.

Update: Just remembered.  Stumbleupon.  I never did get a reply from your customer service team either, although thankfully the emails stopped.

All of this begs the question, why do so many companies have broken systems?  Is it a deliberate thing?  Is QA behind the ball?  Am I just unlucky?  Inquiring minds wish to know.

All I do know is it really hammers home just how underappreciated the asynchronous user experience is.  Incorrect or poorly timed emails, slow-to-arrive confirmations, sensitive information, spam, and poor control of all of this can have a huge effect on the user experience of the site.  While this part of design for a new application usually comes late in the process, it doesn’t mean it should be treated as an afterthought or not part of the user experience.