Google Checkout still unfit for business: I got my money, but would you?

After my rant about my Google Checkout fiasco and its subsequent mass exposure, Google has restored my Checkout account. I received two emails: one, a very ‘typical Google’ form letter:

And another, later, that was clearly written by hand by a real live person, who thanked me for my feedback. Kind Google employee, I appreciate your letter, and I’m sure you are a fine person. My ire is not directed at you personally.

But, dear reader, my blog post wasn’t feedback. It would have been feedback if there was any way to contact customer service listed on that evilly worded termination page.

My thanks to individuals at Google

I’d like to say that I am very glad to have my account back.

I owe a big “thank you” to the kind and gracious people inside Google who advocated for me and investigated the situation. As far as I know, none of you have the job of handling Checkout stuff or even customer service, but you cared and went beyond your job description.

For that, I thank you.

Why you still shouldn’t use Google Checkout for your business

But even though I get my money back, I don’t plan to use Google Checkout again.

I can’t risk that it will disappear again with no notice and no one I can contact.

If you’re considering using Google Checkout for your business, you have to ask yourself the same question: Can you risk it?

It was only because I was angry enough to write about it publically, and that there was a community who supported & propagated that post, that I got this resolution.

I have no doubt that if I just emailed Google, it would have gone ignored… I would have received empty form letters in response, and no action. Based on other people’s experiences (just search for ‘em), this seems to be the standard MO.

UPDATE: This is exactly what I’m talking about. From a couple minutes ago, on Twitter, when I posted the link to this article:

I’m not a wounded fanboy

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate Google or people inside Google.

I hate the way Google, as an abstract corporate entity, has treated me.

Or rather, the way Google’s abstract, corporate algorithms have treated me.

Financial systems, which people rely on for their businesses, require human review

This is, in fact, the crux of the issue.

As far as I can tell, no human being looked at my account and determined “That account is fraudulent.”

It was a “technical error,” not a judgment call.

On the face of it—yay. Nobody in Google hates my guts. Or the guts of anyone else who’s had earned money disappear inside the vast company, via the automated termination of their Adsense or Checkout accounts.[1]

And I don’t think anyone has instituted a corporate policy of landgrabbing.

But if it’s no one’s fault, that means it’s no one’s responsibility

But on the flip side, with no human intervention, things can get wrecked automatically and it’s no one’s responsibility to fix it.

There was no individual I could reach out to, no one whose job it was to ensure that accounts were disabled for a reason, no one to lend an ear to an upset and confused customer… with missing money.

The closed account message, in fact, seems constructed to strongly discourage any contact, appeal, even hope.

If you’re thinking it’s all just a little innocent misunderstanding, go read that message again and think about the intent behind the way it is worded.

Surprise, you’ve been terminated! We’re keeping your cash.

There was no chance for me to address the (erroneous) problems that triggered the account closure, before my account was terminated and my money seized.

I never even got any notice that that my account had been terminated.

How much business did I lose?

I have no idea how many potential customers tried to buy our JavaScript Performance ebook through Google Checkout and saw a message that our account was disabled.

How many sales did we lose because of that?

I don’t even know when it happened. Because Google didn’t send me a notice, even then. The last email I got from Google Checkout was about “Helpful tips,” on February 9th.

Consider this familiar scenario

Imagine if some erroneous fraud detection metrics disabled your business checking account. Your money was totally inaccessible to you. I travel a lot, so it’s happened to me.

When that happens, you may be annoyed… but all you have to do is call your bank, give a few data points that prove your identity, and your access to your money is restored.

Now imagine that there is no one you can call, and no one you can email, and the message you see when you try to access your card is basically “Nope, there’s nothing you can do.”

Now imagine this message also claims that you can never find out why your account was terminated, because it’s a security risk.

That, in a nutshell, is what it’s like doing business with Google Checkout.

Solutions

At this point in the story, I, as an author, have to provide a solution or risk being called a Whiny McWhinyPants with a pathetic little vendetta.

So, Google (abstract corporate entity), I’m sure you already know this, but for the sake of the Internet, here’s what needs to happen:

  • A formalized and transparent process for terminating people’s accounts and claiming their money for your (Google’s) own
  • Human review of “suspicious” accounts… before they are terminated
  • Contact with the account administators… before they are terminated
  • Email (or telephone) notices upon termination.
  • A formalized and transparent review and appeal process for terminated accounts
  • A dedicated customer service team, with phone numbers, to handle the responses from customers with flagged accounts under review and also for post-terminated accounts with appeals
  • Messages that indicate what action can be taken, at what step, by whom, and whom those actions steps will reach inside Google, how long to expect those steps to take, etc.
  • A customer agreement that specifies clearly—so customers are aware—that when accounts are closed, Google seizes all assets in those accounts… (although changing that boneheaded policy would be even better)

Google, that last item is about helping your customers make an informed choice… to not use your service.

Because your definition of “terminated” means “I keep all your money!”

If I had understood that by that line “restrict access to the Service,” your lawyers actually believe they can mean “…and we keep all your money,” well, I never would have risked it in the first place.

In my world, “restrict access to the Service” means that you don’t let me make any more orders.

Not that you get to keep, forever, without review, without appeal—without even an accusation—everything that’s in my account.

A bank couldn’t do that. A credit card company couldn’t do that. An employer couldn’t do that. A publisher, paying royalties to an author, couldn’t do that.

A search engine can’t do that either.

In conclusion…

Even PayPal has a phone number you can call and customer service teams. Even they have a review process.

PayPal is supposedly the bad guy in this industry. Google needs to—at the very least—be as “good” as their competitor with the worst image.

I feel really sad that it’s come to me writing that kind of message, but there you go.

[1] Like Thomas Fuchs, my husband, who lost over $2,000 in ad revenue from his open source project’s homepage. Yes, even prominent open source projects are not immune… nor are they even able to get a review process started to potentially recover their money. Apparently this is not that unusual. Just Google for it.

I had no idea.

12 Comments

  1. Danny Tatom says:

    Damn good article, and I applaud you for standing your ground. Also nice of you to give them a few pointers, we can only hope they see this.

  2. Eric Beland says:

    Excellent article–way to argue for accountability while still thanking the individuals who went to bat for you.

    How can what Google does in terms of seizing profits be legal? Amy, has anyone from a legal background given you any opinion on this?

  3. Nazgum says:

    Great article, thanks for taking the time to write it =)

  4. Wombat says:

    The thing that raises my hackles is their <quote> For security reasons, Google Checkout cannot provide specific information regarding the closure of your Checkout merchant account. </quote>

    "Security reasons"? ‘We screw you over, and won’t tell you why’ is more like it.

  5. Ted Han says:

    Actually, Wombat, the behavior you’re describing has been referred to as "kafkaesque" when perpetrated by the Bush administration.

    The notion that you are being judged based on secret evidence which you are not allowed to rebut is genuinely nonsensical and unjust.

    I understand why google doesn’t want to disclose the secret sauce behind something like their indexing (because it’s supposed to be a descriptive system, and the more informed people are about it, the easier it is to game).

    But as Amy points out, the real problem is that financial & purchasing systems -aren’t- like search engines. It is seriously questionable to let algorithms, without serious oversight, run wild with other people’s money. Especially when there are no documents on what is good or bad behavior.

    And Google’s customer service is certainly the insult on top of algorithmic injury.

  6. "Even PayPal has a phone number you can call and customer service teams. Even they have a review process."

    PayPal’s phone number is a smoke screen. I had $1500 stolen from my account, I saw that unauthorized withdrawal. By the time I called PayPal and alerted them, that transaction was removed and they told me,

    "We’ve never ever been hacked before."

    Bullshit.

    Just because PayPal has a phone number (Staffed by rude A-holes) doesn’t mean a damn.

    Great article, glad you got some action! The power of the internets can even make Google take "action".

    Now the lawyers better start revising their terms of use before they start losing clients and respect.

  7. Fred Moyer says:

    PayPal has a tedious process whereby you can actually get in touch with a human and provide them with credentials that you are who you say you are. They held a $500 payment to a nonprofit that I helped do the tech work on. It took a couple faxes, calls, and mild threats, but in the end the money was released.

    OTOH I lost $500 to Google AdSense because an article I wrote drew traffic and got my account shut down because of <insert reason here>. Several inquiries through their automated form went unanswered.

    You’re lucky that you have the pull to get that resolved. For the rest of us, it looks like small claims court is the only option – http://www.labnol.org/internet/banned-adsense-publisher-gets-his-money/7808/

  8. Ben Tremblay says:

    Slightly aside: I’ve been finding google increasingly insular … closed to feedback. To me that’s not trivial. It’s major … cultural. "Crowd sourcing" with doors locked and windows sealed? I’ve given up on "beta testing" google stuff. If something fails I now shrug and move on.

    Maybe not a breach of "do no evil", but not inspiring.

  9. Miles K. Forrest says:

    Glad to see it worked out for you, Amy. At the same time I will never use Google Checkout, having seen inside from a user’s perspective.

    To give your money, YOUR MONEY, back is frankly not enough. There should be damages involved. Stress, frustration, lost sales, credibility to your business. There’s a whole host of reasons why just giving back to you what was rightfully yours is not enough.

    If Google wants to truly not be evil, then hand all the cases of closed accounts over to an outside 3rd party and find out who all the innocent people were they shafted. They need to make amends, not just say they’re sorry to a couple of individuals.

  10. Victor says:

    Hearing about cases like this makes me think that violent ways of restoring justice is justified sometimes.

  11. Glad you got justice in the end, even if it was delayed. As they say, truth prevails in the end. :) After reading both of your stories I have decided to stay away from Google checkout as well (I can only imagine how many potential clients they are losing out on everyday because of your articles, hee hee :D )

  12. “Hearing about cases like this makes me think that violent ways of restoring justice is justified sometimes.”

    Exactly. Tit for tat; even I believe in that. ;)

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