Google’s “Product Ideas” Campaign Isn’t Crowdsourcing. It’s A PR Stunt

Google [GOOG] has just launched a “Product Ideas” site where users can submit suggestions for innovation. The Web is abuzz: is almighty Google resorting to crowdsourcing? No, they’re not. They’re just looking for a little good press.

Google [GOOG] has just launched a “Product Ideas” site where users can submit suggestions for innovation. The Web is abuzz: is almighty Google resorting to crowdsourcing? No, they’re not. They’re just looking for a little good press.


According to Google’s mobile blog, which announced the new feature, the Product Ideas site will be limited (for now) to ideas about Google mobile product features. Users can suggest ideas they’d like to see in Google mobile apps, and they can vote each others’ ideas up or down depending on their merit.

The blog Search Engine Land has hypothesized that Google’s Product Ideas page, which would obviously generate ideas for free, and its recent cost-cutting initiatives aren’t a coincidence. Eweek’s Google Watch blog said that Google might now be unwilling to let their “programming teams go off on their own to forge failures.”

It’s true that to stem costs, the company has been cutting down on its famous “20% time,” in which it affords one day a week to its engineers to pursue their own pet projects. Many of Google’s best ideas, like Gmail, have been products of 20% time, but in the face of a deepening recession, Googlers are going to have to be more focussed.

Google CEO had this to say to the The Wall Street Journal:

The company will curtail the “dark matter,” [Schmidt] says, projects that “haven’t really caught on” and “aren’t really that exciting.” He says the company is “not going to give” an engineer 20 people to work with on certain experimental projects anymore. “When the cycle comes back,” he says, “we will be able to fund his brilliant vision.”

But if Google is really trying to generate innovation for free, then there’s something fishy about its methodology. Look at the verbiage the Google’s mobile blog post that announced Product Ideas:


The Product Ideas team will pop in from time to time to see what you have to say, and we’ll be offering periodic updates on what we see and what ideas make it into your favorite products in our Product Ideas blog.

Huh? “Pop in” from “time to time?” This thing has been around for less than a day, and already 1000+ ideas have been submitted with 52,000 votes. That’s not crowdsourcing; that’s sheer innundation, and it’s not useful. If Google was really going to troll this forum for potential products, it would take thousands of man-hours. There’s no limit to how many votes a user can cast, and there’s no filter that screens out duplicate submissions as on Digg or Reddit, the two most successful vote-based forums on the Web. At this rate Google will be getting 7,000 ideas a week, and the difference in votes between the top few hundred will be negligable. Are they seriously going to vet several hundred ideas a week? How many interns do they have, anyway?

If Google really wanted to gain workable ideas from its sea of users, it would be open sourcing innovation, not crowdsourcing it. What’s the difference? Crowdsourcing implies participatory problem-solving done by amateurs or volunteers. Open sourcing provides a product’s source code to the public, in the hopes that coders and engineers will develop and distribute applications or features on their own. One is done by people who know how to engineer software, and the other is done by regular folks. One can actually produce workable ideas and even products, while the other just nets fantastical ideas. One appeals to a small, manageable group of computer nerds. The other catches the interest of the general public.

So if you wanted to develop new ideas for your mobile applications, which sourcing method would you choose? The one that produces feasible ideas, or the one that spreads like wildfire to average users and bombards your site with input?

Remember that Google’s cost-cutting initiative is all about cutting what Schmidt calls the “dark matter” — the pie-in-the-sky ideas. Google, like all companies, is looking to weather the recession with a base of reliable products, and only the occasional disruptor (and only if it’s a really, really good bet.) Take a look at the suggestions already on Product Ideas. Dark matter, anyone?

If Google was really trolling for usable innovations, it would have offered some kind of prize. The prize wouldn’t even have to be monetary, as with its other famous contest, the Google Lunar X-Prize. Plenty of users would kick in an idea or two for the chance to spend a day at Google’s headquarters, get some free Google schwag, or spend an afternoon playing mini-golf with Sergey Brin.


So if this isn’t a real idea-generator, what is it? Well, it might simply be good PR for one of Google’s new, unsung applications: Google Moderator.

Google prominently describes Product Ideas as a case-in-point for what Moderator can do in the blog post cited above:

The new [Product Ideas] page, built on Google Moderator, allows you to submit ideas that others can view and rate so you can see what other Google mobile users think about it, too. This way some ideas will be voted up and others will be voted down.

Strike out a couple of words, and you have the definition of Moderator itself, not a description of the Product Ideas page. By making a connection between Moderator and a question at hand, Google is hoping that users will make an analogical connection with other questions in their own careers, meetings, and conferences that are best solved with group input.

Moderator was quietly rolled out at the end of September. Be honest: how many of us had even heard of it before the Product Ideas page made news?

About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs.