Google Shuttering Knol, Wave, Other Products

In a move Google characterizes as “off season spring cleaning,” the search engine revealed plans to close down, phase out, and discontinue at least seven of their products and services. This is the third time this year that Google has streamlined its product line.

Google has been making posts on the progress of their cleanup once a month since September. In that first post, the search giant reported plans for ten of their products. Discontinued or substantially altered products included Aardvark, Desktop, Fast Flip, Image Labeler, Google Pack, and many others. In some cases, products were deprecated; in others, the product’s technology was moved for use in other services Google provides. In this first post on the “spring cleaning,” Google noted that it would “make things much simpler for our users, improving the overall Google experience. It will also mean we can devote more resources to high impact products – the ones that improve the lives of billions of people.”

The October post on the progress of the cleanup effort featured a shorter list, but may have hit some a little harder. Of particular note, Google shut down Google Labs, a wonderful place on the website where users could play with lots of experiments that Google’s engineers created. Many of these mini-applications were both cool and useful, sometimes involving different ways of finding and visualizing data. With the Google Labs shutdown, each of those projects would have to stand or fall on its own merits. Other casualties this time around included Code Search, Google Buzz, Jaiku, iGoogle’s social features (pushed aside in favor of Google’s focus on Google+), and the University Research Program for Google Search.

For this month, Google’s blog post covered seven products. As Frank Watson reported in his article for Search Engine Land on the topic, Google seems to be remaking its products and focus with specific users in mind. He spotted a bias toward “holders of Google+ accounts and supporters of HTML5.”

The seven products being eliminated represent a mixed bag, with relatively few surprises. For example, Google Knol stands out on the list. It was one of those products I’d always been wanting to try, but only used perhaps a couple of times. As with many of the products and services Google is closing down, it seems as if something else already fills the niche – something that is at least “good enough” that the Google product can’t get traction.

Launched about four years ago as Google’s answer to Wikipedia, it was supposed to allow real experts to collaborate on in-depth articles. Google won’t be continuing this work, but the company worked with Solvitor and Crowd Favorite to create Annotum, an open-source scholarly authoring and publishing platform based on WordPress. If you have a Knol or use the system, it will continue to work until April 30, 2012. From May 1 through October 1 of that year, knols won’t be viewable, but owners can still save them by downloading them and/or exporting them. Even now, you can check out Annotum and move your content over.

So which other products made it into Google’s version of the Valley of Misfit Toys? Google Bookmarks heads the list. It was supposed to allow users to share bookmarks and collaborate with friends. It will close December 19. “All bookmarks within Lists will be retained and labeled for easier identification, while the rest of Google Bookmarks will function as usual.” This will only affect users of the English language version, since Lists was an English-only feature.

Nobody should be the least bit surprised to hear that Google Friend Connect will be closing. This service let webmasters add social features to their sites. Guess what? Google’s pushing Google+ pretty hard, and this service competes with their social site. So it will retire for every non-Blogger site on March 1, 2012. But never fear; if you want to get some semblance of social features for your site, Google encourages you “to create a Google+ page and place a Google+ badge” on your site so you can “bring [your] community of followers to Google+ and use new features like Circles and Hangouts to keep in touch.”  I’m not sure how many webmasters used Google Friend Connect, but I suspect this might be a real loss. I’m not convinced Google+ is the answer for every website’s social efforts.

Google gave every indication that Google Gears was also slated for elimination, as the company stopped supporting it in March. In case you didn’t know, this browser extension let users create offline web applications. Google is phasing it out; by the end of December, it will no longer be available for download. Instead, Google will be adding support for HTML5 to include offline capabilities; the search engine notes that you can already access Gmail, Calendar and Docs offline in Chrome.

Google does seem to realize that some of the services they’re eliminating will be missed, and has been trying to point users toward similar features. For example, while Google Search Timeline will be removed, “Users will be able to restrict any search to particular time periods using the refinement tools on the left-hand side of the search page.” Other resources that offer graphs with historical trends include google.com/trends, google.com/insights/search, and the “ngram viewer” in Google Books.

You can wave good-by to Google Wave. It will become read only on January 31, 2012, and close for good on April 30. If you want to get your content out, you’ll have to do so before then – but at least there’s a PDF export feature that will let you do it. Given that Marissa Mayer, a Google vice president, listed Wave as one of Google’s top three mistakes more than a year ago, the only real surprise may be that it’s lasted this long.

In a way, though, the one I’m saddest to see go is one I never used: Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal (RE<C). Google actually dedicated an engineering to come up with and research ways to improve solar power technology. As Google notes, “At this point, other institutions are better positioned than Google to take this research to the next level.” Fortunately for the curious – and anyone who has an interest – Google has published its results, even though it’s closed the project. The company remains dedicated to the cause of cleaner, more efficient energy, and has invested more than $850 million in renewable energy technologies. It makes sense that Google would close this project, however; they’re search specialists, not energy engineers.

While Google will probably be closing more projects, Watson thinks this is the last set of eliminations from the search engine for this year. My instinct tells me they might sneak a few more in right before Christmas or New Year’s Eve, possibly piggybacking on an announcement of new features added to another product. We’ll see which one of us is right. Stay tuned.

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