What is Google’s approach to customer service and why it uses algorithms instead of people?
Customer service, or user support, is a really interesting problem. Because normally, if you’re a company, you’re only supporting the people who buy your product. So even if you’re a hugely successful company, you have a relatively small group of people that you have to support. With Google, we’re literally supporting anybody on the web who wants to use our free web service. And so there’s, at last estimate, something like 2 billion people on the web. A lot of them use Google.
I think Dewitt Clinton had done a little bit of an analysis, where he said “If you have a billion people… Say, each person only has a problem once every three years and then that person has a problem that can be solved in, say, 10 minutes”. And he worked out the math and it showed something like we would need over 20,000 people to handle customer support or user support just for those instances. So one 10-minute instance every three years for a billion-plus people. And if it’s 2 billion people, then you need 40,000 support people, right?
No matter how you slice and dice the numbers, it’s really, really tricky to support the sheer number of people who have questions about how Google works, or the number of webmasters – there’s over 200 million domains on the web.
Answering questions one-on-one on Twitter can work really well, but then you’re just talking to one person. Same thing with email. If you’re only talking to one person privately on email, you’re not solving a bunch of other people’s problems. So we’ve looked around at how to solve support, and it’s been an ongoing evolution. For example, GoogleGuy hosted starting back in 2001 on webmaster forums. And that was a pretty good solution, because then lots of people could read the answers there.
AdWordsAdvisor showed up just a little while later and has answered literally thousands of questions. Soon afterwards, a couple years later, we’ve rolled out forums. The ability where lots of different people can show up and help each other with questions and answers, and that scales relatively well. So there’s a bunch of different things that we think about. And we continue to try different experiments. Things like blogging, things like webmaster chats. These webmaster videos that can sometimes get tens of thousands of views, so that’s a pretty scalable support mechanism. We’ve also tried things like AdWords support. So now you have telephone support if you use AdWords, where you can call up. And you might disagree if somebody says, “oh, we don’t think you should be using those keywords, and we’re not going to allow you”. But you can actually talk to a person.
We’re continuing to try to iterate. It’s a really hard problem. I’m not sure everyone realizes when you’re talking about internet scale numbers, just how many people have questions, or want to know how Google works, or want to know about their website. It is really tricky to be able to offer that sort of support scalably. Google’s thinking about how to do it in all kinds of different ways all the time. So if you have suggestions, we’re happy to hear it. But hopefully, that makes clear that it’s not just like we don’t want to do it. It’s just it’s a hard problem. We’re trying to figure out how to do it well. And algorithms are a good way to do that.
Google’s Webmaster Tools are a self-service mechanism where you can find your own errors, find your own links, and identify issues where your site might be slow. That’s really nice, because you don’t have to talk to a person to remove a URL, for example. If it’s a self-service system, then that’s much more scalable. If you look at things through that lens, you can see a lot of the different innovations that we offer. Everything from rel canonical to preferred domains with www versus non-www, a lot of that we try to aim to be self-service, so that we’re not on the critical path. Sometimes it works really well. Sometimes we don’t do as well as we’d like to do. But we’re always trying to think about how to do better.
by Matt Cutts - Google's Head of Search Quality Team