The sad, perplexing state of Google tech support

What happens when I call Google tech support to see if they can solve a fairly mundane but slightly complex (and unsearchable) problem.

google docs android
Credit: Derek Walter

Have you ever typed in a URL incorrectly and arrived at what was obviously a fake site? It looks somewhat real -- there is some fake text, a few flat colored boxes, and maybe even an awkward logo for "Googel" or "Appel" designed by what seems like a third grader. It’s a trick, of course. There might be some malware lurking about, but it’s even more likely a ruse to get you to click on something, prove you are human, and see some ads or maybe get re-directed to a real site that has some ads.

This might be a stretch, but that fake site is a good analogy for Google tech support. It’s not really support. It feels a bit like you are dealing with one of those fake sites or a company that may or may not exist. More accurately, it feels like you are a customer of an online ad, which is more true than any of us want to believe.

I’ve always been a little curious about Google support but never really bothered. I figured, most of what I need to know is already online and, if it isn’t available in a forum somewhere, I can always ask people on Twitter. Then I ran into the perfect tech support problem. It is easy to explain and easy to troubleshoot, yet it’s still a bit perplexing. Also, it’s insanely difficult as a search criterion.

The problem is that, on some computers, when you click a link to a Word doc in Chrome, the file sometimes downloads instead of opening in Google Docs. Maybe that seems trivial, but if you tend to open dozens of docs like this each day, it’s a real pain.

You could try to do a search on this problem, but it won’t work. “Doc files won’t open in Google docs” leads nowhere. The terms are just too generic, and the plethora of “fixes” from other users don’t actually resolve anything. You are a needle holding a needle who has jumped into a pile of needles.

“So you need to open a Google Doc and you don’t know which files are supported, am I understanding what you are saying correctly?” asked the friendly agent at Google. For some reason, you don’t actually call Google tech support, they call you. I tried this for Google Drive through the support section and you leave your name and a call-back number. I guess this feels a bit like a drug deal. My representative called me within about 30 seconds. This habit of repeating back the entire problem as a method of clarification makes me feel like I am going to the dentist.

It’s hard to describe. I felt as though the agent was using multiple words and paragraphs in the same way you might fill up that fake site just to make sure there is enough text. It wasn’t just a wordy response. “What I understand you saying for this tech support call to Google today to troubleshoot Google Docs this afternoon is that you are having trouble opening Google Docs,” she said. "Is that right?" That’s a direct quote. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with my actual problem, but that doesn’t seem to be important. The goal is to say things that sound like tech support.

Here’s the answer to the problem to alleviate any tension here. First, it has nothing to do with Google Docs. It’s a Windows problem loosely related to Chrome. First, I needed to select the option to “always open files of this type” in Chrome. In Windows, I needed to associate the file to Google Chrome and not to Microsoft Word or another app. This requires that you find the Chrome executable somewhere on your drive.

“You have to download the file first and then use the Upload feature in Google Docs. Or you have to make sure you have downloaded the Google Docs app,” she explained. The first remark is not actually true. Every other computer I own opens the Word doc in a tab in Google Docs; you don't have to download and upload it. The second remark has nothing to do with opening the file in a tab. The Google Drive app is for syncing local files to the cloud and, also, to confuse and irritate you.

I asked to speak to a supervisor. The results were exactly the same. A lot of words but no solution. The problem is that Google tech support is not actually tech support. It's a black void of nothing. My guess is that it is there to appease people who like to make phone calls to support and talk to a real person. It is an illusion. They are probably asking how to install Chrome. They don’t know what a PDF is. The response doesn’t matter as much as having someone who provides the illusion of support.

What’s the answer here? Maybe there isn’t one. No one expects support for free software. Maybe the biggest company in tech shouldn’t bother providing tech support to customers when the customer is really the person who looks at ads. I feel there should be real tech support for products, even if they are totally free. Is it a serious product? Is it only for people doing fake work? Do we pay the price for it by looking at ads? The answer is yes to all of those questions.

Google, you can do better. Use a chat system or at least figure out how to train people in basic troubleshooting techniques.

During a screen-share with a supervisor, the person on the other end of the line went suddenly quiet. It was awkward, because I could still here her breathing. I kept showing her the problem and then hunted around for the Chrome executable. It's easy to find. You just right-click on the icon in the Start menu and find the path.

I showed her, and she suddenly disconnected. Oops.

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