Let me get something out of the way straight up. I am a fan of Google. Are their services and products flawless? Probably not. Did they live up to their stated objective of “do no evil”? Well I guess the Chinese difficulties didn’t exactly paint them in the best light, nevertheless I can think of less savoury technology companies. On the plus side, I have used Google’s services and, in particular, their cloud-based e-mail – Gmail – for years and been very happy with them. If I explain that my smart phone is a Nexus One, you will probably get the general idea.
However, Google have introduced a “feature” into Gmail which leads me to question what on earth they were thinking. This is the “Consider including” function. When you type an e-mail, Gmail comes up with a list of people that you may like to also copy it to. Let’s pause and just think about this. You are writing an e-mail, generally the first thing that you do is to type in the address of the person (or people) you are writing to. Gmail has a useful feature that scans your previous mails, so typing “Pe” will bring up “Peter Thomas” as an option. So far so good. But then, based solely on this first e-mail entered (not even on the subject), the bar highlighted in pale yellow appears above with a list of people that you may consider including on the mail.
Google’s algorithms may be great at figuring out which context-based ads to display alongside the advertising-supported Gmail (though I must admit to never having clicked on any of these and to generally mentally filtering them out), but how does an algorithm know better than me who I want to send an e-mail to? I suppose we could give the geniuses at Google the benefit of the doubt, maybe they do know.
Sadly empirical evidence is that the software doesn’t have a clue. In the example above, the contacts “J”, “L” and “R” (the names have been anonymised to protect those irrelevant to the context) have nothing whatsoever to do with the e-mail recipient (again anonymised) that I started writing. Aside from perhaps once being cc’ed in an e-mail sent to the person whose address I typed in, they have no relation to either the intended recipient, or indeed to each other. As to content, at this point there isn’t any, so it is anyone’s guess how Google generates the list; an even more worrying question is why do they?
Not only does the feature fail to work, it is also totally asinine. It might make some sense for say Facebook to suggest people with whom you might want to share a link. However, there are people who you might e-mail twice a year for very specific purposes, that still get suggested in a “Consider including”. Google plainly doesn’t know better than me to whom I actually want to send an e-mail. A worry is that a stray click and a lack of attention could send an e-mail to someone who is not intended to see it. Given the fact that many small businesses and sole-trader consultants rely on Gmail, then – in extremis – this could lead to commercially sensitive (or indeed personally private) information being sent to the wrong person. The feature is clearly ill-advised and – worst of all – you cannot (at present) turn it off.
In searching (via Google) for tips on how to get rid of this truly abysmal piece of functionality I came across two things: screeds of people just like me asking what Google was thinking and the an article entitled: Gmail’s Most Ridiculous, Idiotic, Intrusive, Useless Feature Ever by Zoli Erdos, which covers the problems and potential implications of “Consider including” in more depth. Here is a pithy quote:
I’ve never thought the day would come I would write the words utterly ridiculous, iditiotic, intrusive, with absolute certainly about a Google feature
This “feature” is bad enough to have merited me writing to Google asking them to remove it, or at least make it optional. Their support forums are full of people saying the same. It will be interesting to see whether or not they listen.
[Disclosure: I have more than one Gmail account and also use Google apps from time to time, as stated above, I also use Feedburner and have a Google smart phone. Other than this I have no commercial relationship with Google and have never bought or recommended their services in a business context]