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Looking back at 2020: Communication, COVID-19, Creator Updates


2020 was an unprecedented year in many ways. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted product development, with teams suddenly working from home, and new priorities for product features. And there were evolving policy updates meant to limit the spread of misinformation. 

Conferences moved online and provided free virtual access to speeches, panels and office hours. And that is just a part of a larger shift to online content, with concerts and plays, tours, and more of usually in-person events available over the internet.

With the coronavirus still raging, vaccinations only slowly becoming available, many people struggling without work, and businesses without customers, it’s looking like 2021 may not be much better. I’m hoping I’m wrong about that.

It’s been an interesting year as a Google product expert, watching the changes and trying to help users navigate the new normal.

The main trends for creators this past year: 
  • Advances to communications and tools for work, school, and pleasure with many updates to Meet, Duo, Chat, and Messages. Get the full review of Google's communications updates in 2020.
  • New user interfaces for YouTube, Blogger and AdSense.
  • Tightened policies for publishers and creators, especially around harassment and misinformation.
  • More ads and ways to monetize content from YouTube and AdSense. Get the full review of 2020 monetization updates.
  • Google information, support and tools for bloggers, podcasters, photographers and other web creators beyond YouTube.
  • More visual content for mobile devices. And yes, by that I mean Stories are everywhere.
I’ll be sharing more detailed reviews of those changes over the next few days. 

COVID-19-related Changes

The COVID-19 pandemic shaped 2020, including Google's products and services. That has led to frustration for users, creators and content consumers alike.

While more human reviewers and support staff are now available, changes to content policy are ongoing. And AdSense is continuing to have issues with the mail (which, of course, they have no control over).

The flip side was a rapid push to improve Google’s online communication tools.
As Google Hangouts will be retired completely in 2021, it’s excellent that we now have really full-featured video calling as a replacement.

The US Presidential Election

This has been one of the most contentious US elections in memory, with social media platforms seemingly unable to stem the tide of vitriol and false information.

YouTube and Google Search made updates to promote accurate voter and election information, while trying to stop the spread of misinformation.

While they considered that to be a success, this has been an ongoing issue, with President Trump unwilling to accept that Biden won in November.

That has culminated in a riot and invasion of the Capitol building this week. YouTube had to quickly remove live streams and videos that incited violence (including one posted by the President), and started giving strikes to channels that post content falsely claiming widespread voter fraud, rather than just removing the content.

As of this writing Donald Trump has been suspended from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, at least through the inauguration on January 20. He is not banned on YouTube as of this writing.

This is likely to result in tougher policy enforcement around misinformation and inciting violence on all social platforms going forward.

Black Lives Matter

Over the summer, the killing of George Floyd sparked protests against police brutality across the US and the world. Many businesses, including Google, pledged to support the Black community.

Photos, Maps, and My 2020


While I’ve been fortunate that my 2020 has been relatively OK, it was still a pretty tough year. With so much time at home, I feel like I should have been doing more, creating more, getting more done, but some days I have trouble even getting started. 

And while there were great opportunities for learning online, I found that I didn’t get as much out of online conferences as I expected. When it’s just me and my laptop at home, I can see the pile of laundry that needs washing, dinner still needs to be cooked, family members need assistance, and there are work and personal projects that compete for attention. And I sorely missed connecting with other attendees in person.

However, while I didn’t travel anywhere interesting, or even go out and about much, I got a surprising amount of use out of Google Photos and Google Maps. I have been hiking and walking locally, and documenting that with photos. Plus I’ve been trying to help keep local business information up to date by sharing photos and information on Google Maps as a Local Guide.

Google Photos Redesign and Updated Editor


Google Photos underwent a redesign (with a new logo), and made several significant changes to photo sharing and editing.

The new Google Photos mobile design has just three tabs for navigation: Photos, Search and Library (with albums and everything else).

The new Search tab has a very cool new map showing where your photos were taken, and lets you easily find photos taken in a specific spot.

Photos also redesigned the image editor, with a different layout and automated helpful suggestions. You can now (finally) choose between landscape and phone-friendly vertical orientation when creating a movie. Plus there are new automatic creations, with updated collage designs and “cinematic photos”.

And photo sharing - which I do a lot of - was improved. At the end of 2019, sharing single photos or videos with specific people became more like a chat with photos, rather than a bunch of individual shared albums. This was extended to album sharing.

In 2021, uploading to Google Photos will no longer be free, as most images will count against your Google account storage quota. I expect that to change the way I take and manage my photos. And I'm interested in seeing how may change expectations around Photos features.

Google Photos Print Subscription

Google Photos is one of Google’s most popular products, with good reason. It’s an easy tool to back up and manage your photos.

Early in 2020 Google rolled out a trial of a new photo subscription service which I was fortunate enough to try. Google would use it’s smart machine learning algorithms to pick out your 10 “best” photos from the past month, and then automatically order high quality prints.

You could swap the photos and edit the selections before the prints were ordered.

Unfortunately it wasn’t an ideal test, as it began shortly before pandemic-related lockdowns started around the world. For the most part, I used it to get prints of older photos, which worked well, but kind of defeated the purpose of having an “automagic” selection process.

When the trial ended in June, my conclusion was that it wasn’t for me - I don’t really want 10 photo prints every month - but that it could be nice for families with young kids, frequent travelers and others who like sharing physical photos.

The updated version of the print subscription option was launched in October. If you are in the US, you can find the details in your Google Photos account.

Profiles and Explore Tab in Google Maps


There has been a strong push for users to add business information and photos to Google Maps. In 2020 this was really needed, as businesses changed their hours, shifted services, closed temporarily, and restaurants shifted from usual service, to take-out only, to outdoor dining, to partial indoor dining, then back to take-out only as local regulations changed.

For Local Guide contributors, Google added customizable profiles, that you can choose to have public or keep private. Public profiles can be followed and found on the new Maps Explore tab, which also has business posts and recommendations.

I achieved Local Guides Level 8 in February, when I was on a roll adding photos and information to Google Maps. I’ve occasionally added more content since then, focusing on small businesses, schools, and offices. They usually aren’t particularly photogenic, but my goal is to make Maps more useful for finding information, not just post sexy food photos and the same old tourist spots.

My top two photos were posted in August, one of a local restaurant that has more than 759,000 views, and the outside of the local hospital with more than 744,000 views. I find those to be pretty stunning numbers.

What I haven’t done is made my Google Maps Local Guides profile public. I am hesitant to do that, as being a bit too revealing of where I live and what businesses I frequent, which are all especially close to home these days.

My 2020

My goal for 2020 was to “Explore”. That turned out to be much more difficult than I anticipated. But looking back, despite it all, I did actually achieve some things this year.

My goal for 2021 is to Create, and I’m hoping for better focus and productivity in the new year.

I hope you’ll come along with me!

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