Google Is Facing a Deluge of Complaints From Users

Some profound, some mundane

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Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

Google had a customer service problem on its hands. Shoppers who returned Nexus smartphones and tablets that they bought from the company’s online store failed to get a promised refund. E-mails and repeated calls to Google’s help line yielded only vague assurances that the money would soon be on its way.

After weeks of waiting, the customers decided enough was enough: They lodged complaints with the Federal Trade Commission. “I have called multiple times and talked to multiple customer support representatives, but as of this date I have not received a refund,” a customer from Greenville, S.C. wrote. “Seems the company is unwilling or unable to do so.”

The missing refunds are just one example of the discontent Google’s users shared last year with the F.T.C., the agency responsible for enforcing most of the nation’s consumer of millions of protection laws. Keeping more than 1 billion users happy is a difficult job, particularly for a company whose products have become so central to life in the digital age.

An author from Lockport, Ill. complained that Google had illegally copied his book and made it available for free online. Business owners grumbled about malicious customer reviews in Google’s local pages that they wanted deleted. Someone from McKees Rocks, Penn. vented about buying $425 in Google Play Gift Cards and learning after reading the fine print that it could not be used to buy a tablet computer in Google’s online store. “I’m losing confidence that Google desires or has the ability to properly remedy the situation,” the would-be shopper wrote after contacting Google’s customer service and waiting more than two weeks for a reply.

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The number of complaints against Google has grown rapidly in recent years. F.T.C. received 15,837 complaints related to Google in 2012, nearly triple the 5,974 filed a year earlier. In 2010, Google had 2,835 complaints. The reason for the big increase is unclear. At least part of it is likely due to Google’s growing base of users and new products.

Still, the number of complaints is just a small fraction of Google’s overall users. Worldwide, the company has 1.2 billion users via desktop computers alone, according to comScore. But it is also true that only a small percentage of consumers ever bother to formally file a complaint about their problems.

The F.T.C. provided a sampling of complaints for Google in 2012 in response to a Freedom of Information Act Request. To protect privacy, the agency redacted the names of the filers along with some other sensitive information. The data included a number of complaints forwarded to the F.T.C. from law enforcement and the Better Business Bureau. (Facebook faces similar scrutiny.)

What the complaints show are the huge range of mundane problems that any business of Google’s size has to deal with. There was a common theme, however: Most people who complained told of being ignored by Google’s customer service or receiving canned responses by email that failed to address their problems.

Google tries to handle most customer service issues by pointing users to its online help center and support forums. Assistance by phone is generally not an option for people who use its free services. “Our goal is to give customers the fastest answer with the best possible experience,” Google said in a statement. “We’ve found that online support forums and help center articles better serve our users since many have the same questions.”

Phone support is available only for paying customers like advertisers, businesses that use its premium e-mail and people who buy its electronics.

Despite the rising number of F.T.C. complaints, Google is not among the top targets of consumer anger. Last year, that ignominious distinction went to “credit card services,” a broad category encompassing an array of financial services firms, with 321,496 complaints. T-Mobile was the first specific company listed at No. 9 with 46,392 complaints, followed by Bank of America with 45,262 and DirectTV with 29,221.

The F.T.C. invites consumers to file grievances about any company that they suspect of fraudulent business practices, and hundreds of thousands of people use the system annually to voice their displeasure. Few large businesses escape the public’s anger.

The F.T.C. can open investigations and sue companies that it believes have broken the law. But in reality, many of the complaints merely reflect bad customer service, not fraud. If consumer grievances about a particular issue soar, the agency sometimes forwards them to the company responsible so it can fix the problem. Otherwise, they’re catalogued in a database and largely forgotten.

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Over the years, Google has been a frequent target of F.T.C. investigations. In addition to approving the company’s acquisitions, the agency has probed Google for antitrust abuses and privacy violations. In several cases, Google settled accusations – including paying a $22.5 million fine last year for tracking Apple Safari users – and agreed to change its business practices.

Complaints filed by privacy groups and other public interest organizations were not included among those the F.T.C. provided. Rather than submitting through the public complaint system, they generally lodge their grievances directly to agency staff.

The concerns of such groups are in sharp contrast to what worries the public. Relatively few of their complaints raised any concern about antitrust issues or privacy. Among them was a resident of Kahului, HA. who railed against Google for failing to honor the “do not track” option in Firefox’s browsers that signals a user wants to remain anonymous. Meanwhile, a Web site owner from Granada Hills, Calif. encouraged the F.T.C. to investigate Google for antitrust violations after his Web site lost its top spot in search results because of a change in Google’s algorithm.

“The FTC needs to stop Google – this is a complete antitrust issue,” the Web site owner wrote before adding that Google has “shut us down.”

Google declined to comment about the problems refunding money owed to shoppers. Complaints about the matter tapered off after a couple months, however, suggesting the company eventually fixed the issue.

Google advertising accounted for another large block of complaints. Owners of a photography studio in Doylestown, OH., for example, said that Google continued charging for advertising after they had shut down their account. Meanwhile, several online publishers groused that Google had wrongfully expelled them from its network and confiscated their earnings. One from Miami said Google took $29,347 without providing any rationale beyond “policy violations.”

In general, Google said that its policies are designed to protect advertisers from publishers that fraudulently inflate visitor traffic, among other misdeeds. Money confiscated from publisher accounts is refunded to advertisers. Online publishers can appeal the decision in writing to be reinstated, although the success rate is unclear.

Whatever the topic, appear to have little chance of ever being resolved, at least by Google. The company has a detailed set of policies that conflict with what some people want done. A self-described member of the military from Tacoma, Wash., for instance, demanded that all information about him or her be deleted from Google’s search results. Any terrorist could the use the information to track his or her family down, the complaint said. But Google generally refuses to remove search results from its index and recommends that people take up the issue with those who published the information.

“I have been violated and feel my rights have been taken by this company,” the person wrote. “I fight for my country and this is how I’m treated?