One week without Google

Google is not nicotine, despite what competitors may think: you can live a Google-free life without too much difficulty.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
5 min read

A Microsoft executive recently compared quitting Google to quitting smoking. As I approach the 10th anniversary of my last cigarette, I decided to put that to the test.

If it weren't for hyperbole, of course, marketing wouldn't be nearly as effective. But Google's presence across the Web does provoke that sort of response from competitors and even friends. From search and Google Maps to Gmail and YouTube, it can be difficult to steer clear of the Google experience during a daily trip around the Internet.

But it's not impossible, and it's not even remotely comparable to giving up one of the most addictive drugs on the planet. During a week in which I pledged to avoid using anything made, owned, or otherwise produced by Google, it was surprisingly easy to cut ties.

Google is a habit; smoking is an addiction. And for the most part, Google lives up to its pledge to avoid locking users into its system. I only missed a few Google products during a week in mid-February and mostly because I was unfamiliar with their substitutes.

That's because (with apologies to Steve McCroskey) I could have picked a better week to quit using Google. Between buying a house, planning a wedding, and a trip to Lake Tahoe, my normal routine was already out of whack. And the launch of Google Buzz meant I had to break my pledge on occasion to stay on top of the changes Google made to that service.

But if you're one of those people freaked out by Google and its expansion across the Web, fear not: you have a wealth of options.

This was perhaps the easiest product to avoid. I'm a Mac user who primarily uses Firefox as my default browser. Switching to another search engine is as easy as clicking on the search bar within the toolbar. It's more complicated if you use Safari and its built-in Google search bar, but you don't have to use Safari to browse the Web.

I decided to go with Bing (which requires Firefox users who want it in their toolbar to download an add-on, but that's easily done), and didn't really notice a difference in the experience. But the experience did drive home something that Yahoo's Prabhakar Ragahavan pointed out two weeks ago during a Yahoo search event.

Bing and Yahoo are spending a lot of time trying to differentiate themselves from Google by working images, graphics, and videos into the search results pages. Niche searches don't surface that kind of structured content, which means that a majority of searches still produce the "ten blue links" that Microsoft and Yahoo consider dirty words. If they really want to change surfing habits, that has to improve.

I've been using Gmail as my primary e-mail for about a year, and although the "conversations" view takes some getting used to, I've come to prefer Gmail for organizational and spam reasons.

I decided that setting up an IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) connection through another e-mail client was cheating since Gmail would still be working things on the back end. So Yahoo Mail got the nod for this experiment, since we use Yahoo Instant Messenger internally for communication across different offices.

There are loads of ways to set up free Web e-mail, so this is an easy switch to make. The only pain came in managing the overlap between the two e-mail systems, but that's mainly because I was getting a ton of e-mail from my real estate agent and mortgage broker and didn't want to confuse them by giving them a temporary e-mail address. Simply forwarding Gmail to the Yahoo address did the trick. While I suppose that's technically cheating, it was easier than trying to get house-related contacts to update their address books at a crucial time.

As an iPhone user, you're locked into Google search as the default option within the Safari browser. (UPDATE: As pointed out in the comments, you can switch to Yahoo from the Settings menu.) But both Yahoo and Bing offer iPhone apps for search, mail, news feeds, and driving directions.

Bing's iPhone app was key to a Google-free mobile experience. Microsoft

Bing's iPhone app was very useful, with voice-activated search and precise driving directions that came in very handy in Lake Tahoe. The maps part of that application also has nice filters for searching for different kinds of restaurants and shops in a given area. I'd have to say I preferred the Google Maps aesthetic, but Bing Maps definitely got the job done.

Everything else
Because of the controversy surrounding the privacy options on Google Buzz after its launch, I had no choice but to break my pledge for professional reasons to stay on top of that experience. But as my Buzz followers (and Facebook friends) are aware, I'm not a big updater of social-media services in general and wouldn't have missed Buzz otherwise.

I completely and totally forgot that I was using Google Calendar synced with my iPhone and desktop iCal application until I was writing this story, so go ahead and ding me for that. Avoiding Microsoft Entourage--quite possibly the worst Mac e-mail/calendar client ever invented and the only one supported by our IT department--is definitely worth it.

YouTube was hard to dismiss. There's simply no other online video service with the breadth and depth of what is available on YouTube, and I was forced to pass on undoubtedly hilarious (yet probably fleeting) links sent to me by friends. Another difficult separation was from Google Reader: the Web-based alternatives I tried were much more buggy and confusing, although NetNewsWire's desktop application worked very well.

Google Docs was another service that I missed, but only because I had already uploaded so much data into that service for wedding planning and real-estate documentation. Several alternatives exist (most notably Microsoft Office Live Workspace) if I was planning to make this a long experiment, but I was able to get around it by forwarding crucial documents to my Yahoo Mail before the self-imposed ban went into place.

But one look at Google's product list shows just how many services I never use, such as Blogger, Picasa, Google Product Search, Knol, and countless others. I have registered accounts with some of those services just to see what they are all about, but don't actively use them.

Competition really is a click away
There are really no excuses for lamenting Google's reach across the Internet: if you don't want to use their services, you are rarely required to do so and you won't miss all that much by going with alternatives.

Google has actually made this one of its calling cards. It reminds regulators and foes alike that "competition is a click away" when forced to defend its amazing growth over the past several years. And through projects like the Data Liberation Front, Google has made it a priority to give its users ways to walk away from its products with their data intact.

That is, if you're a regular person. Advertisers who wish to be online have little choice but to dance with Google and its immense reach. And that's what may one day trip up the company, assuming its hold on online advertising continues to strengthen.

But otherwise, a Google-free life is quite attainable. Still, if your objection to using Google's services is that the company stores too much data on your online habits, don't be fooled into thinking that other Internet companies aren't doing the same thing.