Friday, August 12, 2011

Google dramatically lowers usefulness of Google Groups: One can no longer add members directly

I manage a mailing list for my community.

Street representatives report new people or email address changes to me, and I add them to our community mailing list, so we can keep people informed of emergencies, changes to city services, community events, meetings. etc.

At least, that is how it used to work.

However, in their infinite lack of wisdom, Google have recently removed the ability to add members to a Google Group directly. One now has to 'invite' people.

What is so bad about this, from a usability perspective?
  • People just want to get emails, they do not care what system manages the list. However with the invitation mechanism, people have to associate themselves with Google in a formal way. Many people just don't want to do this. People have simply refused to join the list through the 'invitation' mechanism since Google has led them to set up an account.
  • Many invitation messages just go into people's junk folder, or are ignored as administrivia, even though people have actively given us their email address, and really do want to receive our messages.
  • Often I have a batch of emails to add, and I add them just before sending out an important message. Now I can't do that, since people may take many days to get around to accepting the invitation (if they accept it at all).
Google claims they did this as an 'improvement'. They say "based on feedback we have received from you; we hope they will improve your discussion experience". That is nonsense. We have absolutely never received any spam on the list. Furthermore, there were very string mechanisms already in place to stop abuse: You could only 'directly' add a few members at a time (something on the order of 30). And Google knows who you are, so if you send spam, you are in trouble. Furthermore, you had to have an account in good standing to manage a group and invite members, and as with all Google accounts, it has to be connected to another account (e.g. one provided by your ISP).

Perhaps there has been some abuse. I suppose in the old mechanism, a spammer might have been able to set up an account somewhere else in a false name, then create a Google account with the false account, and finally set up a group and laboriously, over many days, build up a list.. But it would have been utterly impossible to send any useful number of spams that way.

There are mechanisms for sending millions of spams; the old 'add directly' mechanism would have just not been worthwhile for serious spammers.

I think the change must have been prompted by one of the following:
  • Google may have been attempting to force people to create accounts so they can get them to use their services. Is it a coincidence that this change coincided with the introduction of Google Plus? (I will have more to say about that service in a future post).
  • Some isolated spam cases may have reached the attention of a few people at Google, with Google engineers or managers not realizing how the change would hurt so many other people (a classic example of inadequate usability analysis, and not considering unintended consequences).

I invite people at Google to contact me, and I urge them to restore this important function.

As companies get larger and more powerful, running roughshod over their customers in terms of usability has become ever more common. Google used to be top-notch in terms of usability, That is beginning to slip: Little details like this, with big consequences, are becoming more common. The same is true with Apple. I have posted several entries (such as this one and this one) about critical weaknesses in Apples' usability. There is no excuse for this in such large corporations.


  1. This has also rendered Google Groups unsuable to me. I have a Yahoo list and I wanted to move the entire group to Google Groups. I will lose much more than half of the members if I do it this way. So I'll have to stick with Yahoo groups, even though it's technically is not as advanced.

  2. I have noticed that this problem has now been resolved; they present you with a capcha now -- you are able to add members directly again.

    1. I just created a Google Group for our homeowners association. But I can't find any way to add members directly. Instead, I only see the "invite" feature.

      If Google has resolved the problem, could you tell me how I can add members directly. Perhaps I am overlooking something.

    2. Never mind. - I upgraded to
      Google+ and now I can add members directly.

    3. Aha! So Google+ is the secret to direct adding. Good to know.