Recently, I’ve had an opportunity to help a friend utilize Google Base.

I searched for Traxxas Slash; these are web results (and an ad.) To use Base, I'll click the link I've circled at the top in red.

I searched for Traxxas Slash; these are web results (and an ad.) To use Base, I'll click the link I've circled at the top in red.

Base is Google’s attempt to offer a database listing of as many products as humanly (machinely?) possible, with the objective of getting you to use it to find things, and while doing so, be further exposed to ads from their core business. My friend, feeling that this was a marketing opportunity presently unaddressed, was very interested, and understandably so. Base is what you get when you click the “Shopping” button at the top of a normal Google search page.

I agreed to write the code necessary to create the file that packages his inventory (over 30,000 items) for Base, do the uploading, and generally handle the process for him. What could go wrong? It’s Google, right? A company with enormous respect from the technical community, a huge web presence, and a mantra of “do no wrong.” Well. That’s what makes this worth writing about.

I didn’t think it would take a lot of time to implement as I wrote his entire e-commerce system for him and was familiar with the lay of the land, as it were, and in that, at least, I was right. Base is very easy to integrate with; using Python, it only took me a few hours to be able to generate the required data file to Google’s specifications. Uploading the resulting data file to Google is trivial. But… unfortunately, Base has many problems that go far beyond just uploading a correct data file to the system.

For starters, Base rejects items for having “inappropriate” language in them, a good idea – but consistently gets the determination of “inappropriate” wrong. For instance, it rejects a battery charger for which the information (description, title) is absolutely mundane, plain vanilla, accurate and containing no obvious trigger, no double meanings, misspellings, etc. Base just gets it wrong and marks it as “inappropriate.” So the item doesn’t get listed, which in turn represents an abject failure of Base’s stated intent: To expose items for sale to people searching for them.

Now, this is just the kind of error you’d tell a developer about so they could make things work correctly, but that’s where problem number two comes in: There is no way to talk to Google about Base. The closest you can get to it is a forum they apparently pay no attention to, where you may review at your leisure complaints literally going back years which report the same thing: items with mundane descriptions being rejected by an apparently insane algorithm.

This is what you get when you click 'Shopping' - it's Google Base.

This is what you get when you click 'Shopping' - it's Google Base.

They’ve botched the uploading UI in the sense that what it tells you is very misleading. For instance it says “your upload may take up to an hour to process”, but it actually may take four or five days, in some cases even longer. The only place you learn different is in the user forums, where everyone pretty much naturally arrives after the initial hour expires… a day goes by… and still nothing happens. The data file just reads “processing…” and there it sits.

But the real problem is that they simply do a poor job of showing the end user the products. Something is badly wrong with their results; for instance, if you sort by “show lowest prices first”, it simply doesn’t do what you’d expect. Base outright ignores many sellers with lower prices than the ones it presents to you, which is both unsettling and even suspicious. I mean, sorting all your results by price isn’t exactly a great programming challenge. And again, there’s no one you can ask, write to, etc.

When Base presents a list of sellers to you, and you click “all sellers”, what does it do? Well, perhaps I should phrase that as “what does it fail to do?”, because the answer, ridiculous as it may seem, is Base doesn’t show you all the sellers. It doesn’t show you the ones with the lowest prices, or even the highest prices. You get a few big players, a few little players, and the rest… are just lost in the ozone. They’re actually present in Base, too — if you search more specifically, including the store name, up they come. Google simply isn’t showing you them unless you specify that particular store. I’m talking about some pretty big stores, too – Google’s not just leaving out little players, it outright ignores some of the biggest out there, no matter if your metric is inventory size, length of time on the net, or comprehensive parts and information available for the products.

This particular issue could be addressed to some extent by re-labeling the UI element “show many sellers” instead of “all”, or they could actually fix it and show you all of them. Either way it would leave you feeling like Base actually was working, instead of staring at the screen, feeling anywhere from bemused to abused.

Base is a product without any visible means of support – and I have to say that after using it for many months, it is also without any visible means of maintainance. It is broken, it has been broken for years, and there’s absolutely no evidence that Google is working on it simply to bring it up to par, much less add new and useful capabilities.

Google’s stated intent is to do no evil. In this case, I think they’ve done incompetence, failure to communicate, failure to maintain, exposure of bugs without a means of recourse… if nothing else, I get the feeling that they don’t care even a little bit about Base; the inescapable conclusion is that they don’t care about those who are attempting to work with it, either. By extension, the consumer who is trying to use it to learn about or purchase a product isn’t getting very good service. Incomplete and outright wrong results from your own database are nothing to be proud of.

But hey, look. You can always play around with Google Buzz. Because social networking is, like, important and stuff.