Google pulling the rug out again?

Remember the vintage game “Pull the Rug Out?” It is a board game where players stack different items on top of a rug. Eventually, one of the players tries to pull out the rug without tumbling the pieces stacked on top of it.

Google’s recent announcement that it is phasing out several additional services, including the highly popular Google Reader, reminded me of this game, as I recall that the stack most always toppled to the ground. Google introduced Google Reader, gradually built up its popularity, and then pulled the rug out with little warning, causing its customers to stumble. As one Google customer put it: “Google spends millions of wasted dollars on pet projects, then kills one of their best products on a whim.”

Google’s most recent spring cleaning brings the total number of services it has discontinued to 70 in just a year-and-a-half. That’s right-a whopping 70 services that have been shut down in just 18 months.

Among the services Google will discontinue with little warning is Google Cloud Connect, introduced with a lot of fanfare just two years ago. Cloud Connect is a plug-in that enables Google users to share and edit Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel files. To continue collaborating with Microsoft Office, Google users have just four weeks to uninstall Cloud Connect and install Google Drive. Companies that can’t get to it by April 30 will be out of luck, leaving them without a way to collaborate on Office documents used by millions of employees, partners, and customers.

But of all the services Google is discontinuing this time, the one that’s drawing the biggest backlash is Google Reader, a service used by hundreds of thousands of users to keep track of their favorite websites and blogs via RSS feeds.

The news of Google Reader’s shut down drew outrage from users, who put together a petition demanding that Google reinstate the service. “Our confidence in Google’s other products — Gmail, YouTube, and yes, even Plus — requires that we trust you in respecting how and why we use your other products,” the petition says. “This isn’t just about our data in Reader. This is about us using your product because we love it, because it makes our lives better, and because we trust you not to nuke it.”

Many users said the shutdown undermined their trust in Google. As one power user told the Huffington Post. “I’m a Google product user that invested a lot of time in many of those products because Google gave me something in return for what I give them – my data.

Shutdown of Google Reader because of a ‘lack of consumer appeal?’ No way. The simple reason: RSS can’t be controlled and monetized easily,” another user wrote.

What can Google customers conclude from the latest round of Google’s spring cleaning? First, there’s no roadmap they can count on. While discontinuing underperforming services is understandable, IT managers need a product roadmap that will allow them to plan their product strategy. Unlike Office 365, which is updated on a regular schedule, and offers users a 12-month advance notice of significant changes, Google often pulls the rug out with little warning, forcing users to abruptly shift gears.

As one reporter has put it, Google’s lack of a roadmap is unsettling. “I could be part of the in crowd and say that I get it,” wrote John McGreavy of Information Week. “But I’m not sure I do. It can take me six months to socialize (my favorite new buzzword) an innovation, and another six to implement it. Google, is that product going to be around after six months, or replaced?”

Second, because Google’s an advertising company, if there’s no way to capitalize on a service via advertising, it appears that service gets the boot. As Brian Solomon of Forbes points out, Google’s business model is to introduce products for free, hoping to make money later down the line. But instead of asking users to pay for these services, Google instead “shoehorn[s] their massive user base to compensate in other ways: ever encroaching advertising and declining privacy.”

There was no obvious way to capitalize on Google Reader with advertising, writes Solomon. “Because Google couldn’t find a way to capitalize on Reader through indirect means like advertising  … they feel no loyalty to keep it open – even when millions of people depend on it,” he says.

If you’re a Google customer, maybe it’s time you evaluate whether you want surprises like these. As a business, you invest a tremendous amount of resources into the productivity of your users, and Google’s little surprises compromise that productivity. Productivity impacts your business’ bottom line — how many times can you afford to have the rug pulled out from beneath you?