The Industry

Google What?

Waymo. G Suite. YouTube Red. Why is the search giant so bad at naming its products?

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - MAY 08:  An attendee works on a laptop before the start of the Google I/O 2018 Conference at Shoreline Amphitheater on May 8, 2018 in Mountain View, California.  Google's two day developer conference runs through Wednesday May 9.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Among its peers, Google stands out for its history of bad product names.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

This week, Google announced that it’s pulling the plug on one of the worst-named internet products in recent memory. YouTube Red, the subscription-based music and video service that sounded a lot like a porn site, will be replaced by a pair of new services, YouTube Music and YouTube Premium. You’ll pay a bit more each month for the privilege of not having to hide your credit card statements from your partner.

The demise of YouTube Red comes the same week that Google rebranded part of Google Drive, its cloud storage service. Its paid storage plans for consumers will now be called Google One, and Drive customers who had those plans will become One customers. Neither Google Drive nor Google One is in the same league as YouTube Red when it comes to awful names, but they’re not exactly Dropbox, either. Google One sounds like it should be the name of Sundar Pichai’s private jet, and Google Drive sounds like it should be the name of Waymo, the self-driving car company under Google parent Alphabet. Waymo doesn’t sound like it should be the name of anything.

Then there’s G Suite, which sounds like the winner of a contest to see if anyone could come up with an even worse name for a group of productivity apps than the one it replaced, which was Google Apps for Work (previously Google Apps for Your Domain). The beloved Gchat became the confusing Google Hangouts, in a rebranding so disastrous that it set back the company’s entire messaging strategy. The company has been churning through new names for its various messaging services ever since, including Allo, Duo, Android Messages, and most recently, plain old Chat. The company is on its safest ground when it just prepends the name “Google” to whatever a product or service does: Google Docs, Google Reader, Google News. Yet even that formula can go awry. The corporate history ledger is littered with “Google ____” names that failed to make clear their intentions: Google Keep, Google Wave, Google Buzz, to name a few.

The company could have embraced the inherent dweebiness of its augmented-reality glasses and called them something self-deprecating like Google Goggles. Instead it aimed for an air of sleek exclusivity by calling them Google Glass, which helped to fuel a righteous normie backlash that led to Glass wearers becoming popularly known as “Glassholes.” It was a nomenclatural own-goal of historic proportions. (I will grant that the alphabetical and dessert-themed naming scheme for versions of the Android operating system is delightful.)

Why is Google—er, Alphabet—so hopeless at coming up with product names? Perhaps the question itself contains part of the answer. Google was an ingeniously playful and memorable name for a search startup, but the company grew so vast and bureaucratic that it couldn’t even stick to the one great, universally recognized name that it started out with. Now Google is a subsidiary of Alphabet, which would be a fine name if it weren’t for the fact that no one uses it because everyone still thinks of the company as Google. Presumably, companies above a certain size default to naming things by committee and according to internal politics rather than in a flash of insight or whimsy. That’s why the best-named subsidiaries of tech behemoths—Instagram, Skype, YouTube, Siri—are usually former startups that kept their names when they were acquired.

And yet no other big-five tech company is quite so consistently atrocious at naming things as Google.

Apple’s product names are obvious, yet iconic: iPod, iPhone, iTunes, MacBook. And if its numbering system for iPhone versions is sometimes baffling—iPhone, iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, iPhone… 4?—at least it’s concise. Apple News, Apple Music, and Apple Watch may not be inspired, but they clearly say what they do and who’s doing it. Lightning, Thunderbolt, and FireWire may be annoying to deal with, but at least they’re fun to say. Safari is a great name for a browser. The company has had some missteps, like the iPhone X, which no one knows how to pronounce. (And remember Ping? No?) But for the most part, it has managed to avoid the most grievous naming blunders, like calling its first smartphone Mobi instead of iPhone.

Microsoft’s product names are hard to love, but hard to hate. Windows, Word, Office, Bing, Internet Explorer. Microsoft Edge is a forgettable browser, but that isn’t its name’s fault. Its Windows versioning is even less coherent than Apple’s iPhone numbering: 98, 2000, ME, XP, Vista, 7, 8, 10(?!?). But whatever.

Amazon has kept things admirably simple. There’s Amazon, there’s Amazon Prime, there are Amazon Fire devices, and there are Echo devices, and most of its new products get a variant on one of those three. Alexa rivals Apple’s Siri as a catchy name for a voice-based AI, and they both blow away the Google Assistant, which I’ve almost never heard anyone say outside of an official Google event.

Facebook is the one Google—er, Alphabet—foe that routinely picks product and feature names that are even worse than Google’s, I mean Alphabet’s. Like Google, the company started off strong when it was small: the Wall, friends, the like button, and Facebook itself were all snappy, evocative names that told you what they did while eschewing verbosity. Messenger and the news feed are fine. But the company lost its way a bit when it started trying to launch spinoff apps, like Paper (which already belonged to another popular app) and the egregious Poke.

The responses to an informal Twitter poll of the worst-named recent launches by a major tech company that I posted Thursday found Facebook an instant winner. Folks, it doesn’t get much worse than Facebook Youth Portal.

Still, Facebook can’t touch Google/Alphabet’s sheer volume of bad names, nor can it match the industry-shaking impact of Alphagoog’s incoherent branding across the spectrum of internet services. Facebook’s product names may sometimes creep us out; Apple’s may lend themselves to parody; Microsoft’s might bore us to death. But only Googphabet launches so many poorly named products that it has to rebrand them on an almost yearly basis.

So rest in peace, YouTube Red, and welcome to the world, YouTube Music, YouTube Premium and Google One. May you last longer than your unfortunate predecessors—but we’ll go ahead and reserve some space for you in the Google graveyard, just in case.