Google Labs' Dropouts and Failures

Not all Google projects pan out

Person wearing Google shirt using phone

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Google Labs was launched in May of 2002. The idea was to create a "playground" for Google engineers to experiment with new ideas (some innovative and some crazy), mostly done as side projects during twenty percent time.

Over the years, Google Labs has incubated some big projects, such as Google Spreadsheets (which later became Google Docs), Google Desktop, Google Maps, and Google Trends. It's also helped launch some small projects that significantly enhanced existing Google products.

In 2011, with an announcement that Google would be putting "more wood in fewer arrows," Google Labs formally joined the Google graveyard. That doesn't mean that Google ended all Google Labs experiments. Some have gone on to graduate and become products with full Google support, and individual apps will maintain their own labs.

Google City Tours

Hand holding iPhone using Google City Tours software

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Of all the Google Labs experiments to get the ax, City Tours was probably the most heartbreaking cut. The idea behind City Tours was that if you were visiting a new city, you could instantly plan a walking tour that plotted local attractions and kept the destination's hours of operation in mind with the suggestion. 

City Tours never went beyond major tourist destinations, but it had amazing potential. You could map out a three day trip with around 10 destination suggestions per day, although the early versions made the mistake of using distance as the crow flies rather than actual walking distance, and it assumed you didn't need lunch, rest, flexible plans or transportation other than feet. Major cities had tour info, but smaller cities were still a little neglected. In other words, it needed a lot of work, but it had amazing potential.

Nowadays, you can still use Google Maps to plan your vacations. It may even be better since you can change plans on the fly, and if you've got a phone with a data plan, you can get step by step walking directions. You can also see ratings and enhanced information about destinations through an attractions place page. Still, it was great to have a starting point. Perhaps Google will rethink this idea and figure out a way to make tourist maps easier than ever.

Google Breadcrumb

City Tours wasn't the only painful cut. Google Breadcrumb was a quiz generator for non-programmers. Google Breadcrumb quiz apps could be generated for mobile or web users, and all you had to fill out was a text form. Although text quizzes and "Choose Your Own Adventure" style games were somewhat limited in scope, it was still nice to have the tool, however, limited the run. 

Google News Fast Flip

A picture of a news site on a tablet

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Fast Flip was designed to bring more of a newspaper browsing experience to Google News. The idea was to allow impatient news readers the ability to rapidly flip through pages of news content until they found a relevant article to read. There was also a mobile version to bring a finger swipe motion to the rapid flipping. A number of publications, including The New York Times, participated in the experiment to see if it increased reader engagement and page views.

One can only conclude that it wasn't as successful as they'd hoped, since the project died with Google Labs and service officially ended in September 2011. However, the comments indicated that the users who did try it loved the experience and were upset about its demise.

Script Conversion

Script Conversion was geared towards people who could understand the spoken language but could not read the script. The idea was to convert back and forth from languages like English, Greek, Russian, Serbian, Persian, and Hindi. While that's really cool, it was also a duplicated effort. Google directed users to switch to Google Transliteration instead. The code for Google Transliteration API was depreciated in May of 2011, but there were no plans to remove the functionality.


Question mark on keyboard being magnified

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Google purchased a quirky web app called Aardvark in 2010. The service was a social networking tool that allowed you to ask questions to "the Internet" and have someone with related expertise hopefully answer. This was sort of like writing a "Dear Hive-mind" question on your blog or Twitter account, but theoretically in a way that only engaged with people who actually wanted to answer that sort of question.

It was fun to answer questions, but the Aardvark service grew more irritating over time. Depending on your settings, Aardvark could prompt (bug) you by email or instant message whenever a relevant question appeared, and the Aardvark engine wasn't always very good at matching relevant questions with your stated skill set.

The idea was interesting, but sometimes Google purchases services more for the expertise of the employees rather than the value of the service itself. Was Aardvark one of those, or did they secretly hope answering questions by IM would be the next Twitter? Whatever the case, Google's energy is probably much better spent on Google+.

Google Squared

Google Squared was an experiment in semantic search. Rather than strictly finding search results, Google Squared would attempt to list categories that matched the search query and list the results on a grid. It worked well for some searches and poorly on others, and it really never felt like anything other than an interesting experiment. Google had already incorporated some of Google Squared technology into the main Google search engine, so it wasn't a tragic loss to see it go. 

Google App Inventor

Animation with apps coming out of smartphone

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Google App Inventor was a way for non-programmers to be introduced into the world of Android app development. The idea was built around MIT's Scratch project and used the idea of interlocking puzzle pieces of code to create an app you could market on the Android market. You could even use App Inventor with the popular Lego Mindstorms robot building kits.

The product was slightly less intuitive than it sounds from that description. While easier to program than learning Java, it's not quite a walk through the park for a new programmer. 

However, App Inventor did not get the direct kiss of death — instead, it was thrown to the mercy of the open-source community. It's now supported by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an open-source tool, just because it has proven to be so popular in the education community.

Google Sets

One of the first Google Labs experiments went down with the ship. Google Sets was a simple little tool. You put three or more items that you thought went together, and Google attempted to find more members of the set. For instance, a set of "red, green, yellow" would yield more colors.

Elements of Google Sets were already in the main Google search engine as it began to understand semantic language and yield better search results.