Corporate innovation is hard. Even companies with great track records, like Google, get it wrong from time to time. Below we’ve compiled some of Google’s biggest bets that didn’t pay off — and one especially ill-conceived April Fools’ Day Gmail joke.
Google+, 2011 – present
Google’s high-profile social network started off strong in June 2011, with a built-in advantage of visibility among most Gmail users. But the social network never managed to siphon activity away from Facebook. By 2014, Google+ underwent a series of leadership changes, followed by a massive redesign of the service. However, these moves failed to substantially enlarge the user base. Though Google+ is still in operation with an audience of about 111 million active users (compared to Facebook’s reported 1.7 billion monthly users), it’s hardly the first name that comes to mind when mentioning “top” social networks.
Google Glass, 2011 – 2015
Google was early to wearables with its launch of Google Glass, futuristic eyepieces that put a computer on users’ faces. The devices garnered lots of media attention, which soon turned negative amid privacy concerns and cultural backlash. There were worries about people wearing the devices in bathrooms and locker rooms, as well as safety issues surrounding driving with the glasses. These concerns, combined with a steep price tag ($1500), meant Glass never took off with consumers. In January 2015, Google said it was halting production of Google Glass prototypes, but wasn’t scrapping the project totally. December of that same year saw Google file a new application with the FCC for a new version of Google Glass, suggesting that the company might eventually bring back the device.
Home automation is gaining a lot of traction these days, but in 2011, controlling aspects of your house with your smartphone or other devices was still pretty far off. Google announced Android@Home at its 2011 I/O conference, but today seems to have quietly abandoned it in favor of the Nest series of products.
Nexus Q, 2012 – 2013
This sleek black orb was a media device that could connect to your TV and speakers and stream various music tracks and YouTube videos that you and your friends curated. It only played Google-approved YouTube and music content, though, and just couldn’t compete with other media-streaming offerings like Apple TV.
Google Lively, 2008
This Second Life knockoff came out a bit too late — about five years after the more widely known simulated world had hit the scene and was already developing a strong following. Commentators blamed Lively’s failure on its Windows-only format and lack of marketing.
Google Viewer, 2002
Back in 2002, when page load times were much slower than they are today, Google hit upon the idea of showing users sites in search results before they actually clicked on the link. After downloading Google Viewer, you’d enter your query and be shown a slideshow of results. The problem was that other sites like Ask.com and Yahoo had functionality like this and did not require a software download. Today, Chrome extensions like Link Preview allow similar functionality, but only for certain sites.
Wave, 2009 – 2012
Wave was an ambitious platform designed to keep people connected through a combination text and social media platform. The clunky interface was filled with lots of boxes (navigation, contacts, chat, email, and conversations) and threads switched back and forth between emails and instant messaging depending on which users were online when messages were sent. Despite early praise for its potential, Google announced in 2010 that it would halt development of Wave as a standalone product and shelved it in 2012.
Google Video, 2005 – 2012
Before Google hit upon the bright idea of just buying YouTube, it took a stab at creating its own video streaming/hosting service in 2005. But up against YouTube, the Google Video service didn’t catch on. After failing to build their own competitor, Google went the other route and bought the dominant video service about a year later. Google Video continued to exist for six more years, though, until being killed in 2012, with all content sliding to YouTube.
Orkut, 2004 – 2014
Orkut was an early social network by Google that owes its unusual name to its creator, Google employee Orkut Büyükkökten. It failed to find a following in the US, but gained so many users overseas (especially in India and Brazil), that Google actually relocated Orkut HQ to Brazil in 2008. The move was short-lived, however. Numbers lagged behind Facebook and even MySpace, leading to the social network’s demise in 2014.
Dodgeball, 2005 – 2009
Before Foursquare was a thing, Dennis Crowley and Alex Rainert put together this location-based social network using the most sophisticated technology they had available at the time: texting. Users texted their locations to the service, which let them know about friends, restaurants, and attractions in the area. Google acquired the company in 2005, but didn’t allocate many engineering resources to the project. The lack of attention, combined with low usage numbers, led to Crowley and Rainert leaving the company in 2007. Google then shelved Dodgeball in 2009 in favor of Google Latitude, a Google Maps add-on that had similar functionality to Dodgeball. Its own lack of users led to Latitude being shelved as well in 2013.
Google Buzz, 2010 – 2011
In February 2010, Google quietly slid this product — a cross between social networking and messaging that let users share links, photos, videos, and more — into Gmail without notifying users beforehand. Privacy issues and the sneaky roll-out made the service unpopular pretty much from the jump (with an eventual class-action lawsuit over it) and it lasted only about 18 months.
Google Catalogs, 2002 – 2009; 2011 – 2013
This was a massive digitization project by Google aimed at turning paper catalogs into digital products users could flip through online. Google shuttered the program in 2009, citing a lack of popularity, then revived it in 2011 for tablets — but this time Google had companies provide the digital catalog content for Google’s review. Still, that program only lasted another two years. Luckily, even without Google’s Catalogs, there are still plenty of other ways to shop online.
Google Answers, 2002 – 2006
Today, many users just type a question into Google and the search engine’s Google Instant feature auto-fills the questions as they type, then provides the most relevant answer in search results. Google Answers offered a different route: Users submitted questions directly into a system with a dollar amount attached that they would pay for a successful response. Researchers would then submit their answers and reap the fiscal rewards. (“What’s the meaning of life?” was reportedly a popular question.) The service was ended due to lack of users.
Google Print Ads and Google Radio Ads, 2006 – 2009
This service may have sounded like one of Google’s April Fools’ jokes, but it was real, and actually made a certain kind of sense: Google would put their considerable user information to work for advertisers to help them target consumers via print and radio ads. However, with print and radio ad revenues trending down, challenges in measuring the success of these ads, and a reluctance on the part of ad execs to put even more of their systems completely in Google’s hands, this service never really took off.
Jaiku, 2007 – 2012
Ever wish Twitter was a bit more…poetic? Well, for five years, Jaiku was the answer, reworking users’ short messages into a haiku-like format. This novel feature wasn’t enough to lure users away from Twitter, however, and Google shuttered the project for lack of users.
Google Accelerator, 2005 – 2008
This project has a slightly misleading name, since it was not in fact a program aimed at fast-tracking early-stage companies. Instead, this downloadable app was supposed to help users download web pages quicker when browsing, but had a variety of bugs, including the curious side effect of preventing YouTube videos from playing. Google stopped supporting Google Accelerator in 2008.
iGoogle, 2005 – 2013
iGoogle allowed users to customize their homepages with a wide array of widgets for things like email, weather, stock information, movie listings, and more. In 2011, however, Google announced it would be shifting its focus to Google+ and retired the product in 2013. Numerous alternatives mirroring iGoogle’s functionality appeared afterwards, many of which are still available.
Google Health, 2008 – 2012
Google Health encouraged users to voluntarily input their health data into Google’s system, which would then merge a variety of disparate health records into one unified record that could then be transmitted to participating healthcare providers. However, Google’s patent for a “method and apparatus for serving advertisements in an electronic medical record system” (U.S. Patent Application #20070282632) raised concerns about the service, along with the fact that it wasn’t considered a “covered entity” under HIPAA, meaning those privacy laws didn’t apply to it. By 2011, competing medical records systems from Microsoft and MediConnect Global popped up. That same year, Google announced that it was phasing out the service and finally closed it in 2012.
Google Fast Flip, 2009 – 2011
Like Google Catalogs, this project was another attempt by the search giant to tie the digital content experience to the physical world. The company designed the desktop and mobile content aggregation app with functionality that provided the old-school feel of flipping through a physical magazine, showing users their content on “pages” that you could “turn,” with a click or a swipe. It didn’t last, though, ending its run in only two short years.
Google Offers, 2011 – 2014
Google saw the Groupon-craze taking off and, after a failed attempt to buy the daily deals company, decided to break into the deals space itself with Google Offers. The service, which was tied to Google Maps’ Places functionality, saw poor results in the waning days of the daily-deals craze, and was shuttered in 2014.
Wiki Search, 2008 – 2010
This innovation allowed logged-in users to make notes on their search results and move them around according to personal preference. These changes only applied to the individual user’s search results, but you could see someone else’s annotations on a given result. This feature failed to find a significant audience; plus, some users complained that their results pages were too cluttered. In 2010, it was discontinued.
Knol, 2008 – 2012
Around the same time as WikiSearch’s launch, Google took a crack at a full-on Wikipedia clone called Knol — a “knol” being a made-up term for a “unit of knowledge.” Like Wikipedia, Knol was supposed to be populated by user-generated articles on a wide array of topics. A project like this is only as strong as its user base and so in 2012, Knol joined the ranks of other audience-deficient projects like Wave, Buzz, and Jaiku, and was discontinued.
Google Voice Search, 2003
Before the days when you could say “OK, Google” and have your smartphone search Google for whatever you might want to know, Google debuted the circuitous Google Voice Search service. Users would go to the Google Voice Search site, call a number, state their query, then wait for a link to appear on screen. Clicking it showed a page of results for their search. It’s not surprising that this roundabout service was laid to rest, though workarounds like this have a lot in common with Q&A platforms like ChaCha, which allow nonsmartphone users to text questions and get answers texted back to them.
Honorable Mention: Gmail Mic Drop, 2016
While not officially a product in its own right, this Gmail feature was a April Fools’ joke gone wrong. Billed as a feature for when “you just nailed it, and there’s nothing more to say (bam),” it would send your response with a gif of a Despicable Me minion dropping a mic, then mute the rest of the email conversation, assuring that you didn’t see what the rest of the thread said to you or about you. This one, by Google’s own admission “caused more headaches than laughs,” and may have even cost one user their job when they accidentally mic-dropped their employer. You win some, you lose some, right?
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