[This post was published on HBR Blogs on 19 March 2012]
James Whittaker left Google and wrote about it. Long story short: Google came under “new” management (which was actually really old management returning) and started focusing on its core products rather than being “all about the technology.” The staff — and this is surely not a shock — don’t much like it. As Whittaker wrote,
The days of old Google hiring smart people and empowering them to invent the future was gone. The new Google knew beyond doubt what the future should look like. Employees had gotten it wrong and corporate intervention would set it right again.
But. But. Google was supposed to be different, folks. And what do you know? Like every start-up before it, it has matured and started to morph into a larger, more bureaucratic organization, concerned with threats and working to protect the core revenues. It was supposed to be different but, in fact, it is the same old story. The interesting issue is why.
The Old Google apparently died around the time Steve Levy released his great book about the old Google — last year. When that story ended, Google was just completing its Manhattan Project-like effort to counter the Facebook threat. Facebook’s threat was and continues to be to Google’s core product, search. Facebook gathers information that Google’s own success destroyed: the linking behavior of website developers and owners that allowed for citation-based search to organize the web. Once Google could organize the web for us, why link? Why set up a portal? Why set up a useful page directing people to various bits of information? There was no reason.
But Facebook has given people a reason to link again — to share information with friends. Facebook knew that this was the kind of information that Google lacked and threw up a wall around it, denying Google access. It was possible Facebook could flip a switch, team with say, Bing, and become a more relevant search engine. Google’s Hal Varian always claimed, especially in antitrust talks, that Google was vulnerable to entry. As the feeling has grown that Google’s search results have become a little less relevant (and, maybe, every so often, just an entrance to the right Wikipedia entry), that vulnerability has become more apparent.
Enter, Google+. The only way to keep the party at bay was to join it. I suspect that even James Whittaker, at the time, was excited by that prospect. The problem is that it was a different innovation exercise for Google — top down rather than bottom up, as its past successes Gmail, Google Scholar and Chrome and its failures, Wave, Buzz, Knol had been. But enough people at Google believed that they had no choice. And equally importantly, the bottom-up system that could build great products and complemented search, couldn’t change the core of search itself. Someone had to imagine that and then a great deal of resources needed to be devoted to the effort.
And so that is when, like others before it, the start-up turned into a corporation. It faced a threat that required a coordinated response and that response necessarily had to crimp the innovation system that had built it. The problem is that coordinated response had its own flaws. As I have argued previously, Google+ didn’t offer consumers much more, if anything, than Facebook did. It wasn’t technologically superior to Facebook. And while it integrated into other Google products, that wasn’t enough. Google Hangouts is great, but has nothing to do with Google+ and is much more a serious challenge to Skype and Cisco’s Webex than anything to do with social linking. Moreover, Circles — the apparent innovation that would encourage sharing — faced an initial default that discouraged sharing relative to Facebook. In any case, all of the good features of Google+ were quickly adopted by Facebook, but as an extra option rather than a default exercise. And the strong network effects from Facebook mean that it is hard for Google to generate even the minimal amount of sharing and linking to properly erect a defense to the threat it faces in search.
It would be nice to argue that the answer is for Google to go back to the old, bottom-up Google model. At some level, it should try to preserve that culture, but it’s really hard to do. My point here is that the “this time it’s gonna be different” mentality that start-ups believe they are founding is wishful thinking. Eventually, a threat comes along that requires a coordinated response. Sometimes that response works — think about Microsoft and its long history of these things — and sometimes it just isn’t going to happen. It is difficult to say what will happen for Google, but a good dose of self-doubt that they are somehow above it all is a good place to start.
Oh yes, and Facebook, if you are listening, all of the above applies to you too.