Google pissed off a few people the other day when it randomly removed the link for the Google Reader RSS tool in the Gmail navigation bar and replaced it with one labeled “Photos” that directed users to the Picasa homepage.
Then a few days later, Google said the change was not intentional and engineers were working on fixing the bug.
The question of whether the link switch was deliberate or not doesn’t matter. After all, it’s not like Google removed the entire Reader tool – it just hid the bookmark to it in a lower level of the navigation bar.
But this situation does bring up a larger Google interface issue that has bugged me ever since the company expanded beyond web search. According to TechCrunch, the order of the links in the Google navigation bar is determined by popularity and click statistics. But just because a tool is popular with a lot of people does not automatically make it useful for everyone. When I go to google.com, I’m stuck seeing a Gmail link in the navigation bar even though I never use Gmail in a web browser. On the other hand, I like checking my stock portfolio through Google Finance, but I have to drill down through a couple menus in the navigation bar before finding the link for it.
The most frustrating thing is that the navigation links are not static – they change depending on what Google page you are looking at. Google web search has a completely different navigation bar than Gmail, which has a totally different set of links from Google Maps.
The solution seems easy to me: set the navigation bar free and let users customize it how they want with the links they access the most. Heck, I’m sure Google already has that kind of usage data on record and could easily implement a smart navigation bar without too much hassle.
But when you get into the subject of user preferences, that starts veering into social territory - and as we all know, Google just flat out struggles there. (For those who are interested in following me on Google Buzz … well, too bad.)