Why Google Needs a New Trick

February 27, 2010

Microsoft’s CEO calls Google a “one-trick pony.” Google’s CEO responds, “I like the trick!”

The trick being referred to in Ken Auletta’s “Googled,” is, of course, search, and, by extension, the programs that monetize it. AdWords and AdSense are responsible for nearly all of Google’s $6.5 billion in annual profits.

It is a good trick. For now.

Today, Google’s bots and algorithms do a brilliant job crawling Web pages and organizing them into thorough, timely search results. If results are to remain thorough and timely, bots must crawl more — not just Web pages — more quickly and algorithms must account for more and increasingly more complex patterns. Google, and anyone in the business of organizing digital information, must manage a what’s-happening-now, what’s happening-here Web where people, networks and everyday objects are constantly exchanging data.

Since it’s loaded, Google can experiment with new products without having to worry too much about monetizing or even popularizing them. Sooner than later, however, it’s going to have to find another golden goose. Look at Google’s track record and you start to wonder whether it ever will.

Google does a lot of cool stuff and a lot of it’s very popular. But, when you think about it, it has as many strikeouts as hits, and its biggest hits — PageRank, AdWords, AdSense and Gmail — came early in its career.

Don’t forget that Google didn’t invent YouTube. It bought it after Google Video flopped. Also don’t forget that while Facebook and Twitter were taking off, Google’s Orkut (outside of Brazil and India) floundered. See, you never even heard of it. Google’s trying to catch up social-media-wise with Buzz, whose early reviews have been cool, some downright cold. Maybe it’ll do better once the privacy issues are sorted out.

Google’s seemingly boundless experiments increase the chances it will find the next PageRank or AdWords. But they also divide its attention, compromising its ability to recognize and respond to threats to its core product. The real-time search capabilities of Twitter, for one, seemed to catch Google off guard.

Twitter, poetically, is very much following the Google blueprint: Build something that’s useful, attract a critical mass of users and cash in — somehow. Twitter’s just beginning to enter step three and, surprise, its solution looks a lot like Google’s.

Twitter’s focus on users is also straight from the Google playbook. But Twitter takes it a step further by letting its users do the experimenting. It sits back, lets users play around, then formalizes what works and ignores what doesn’t. Twitter’s @ (used to mention another user and link to his or her feed), # (used to tag posts about a particular topic) and RT (used to indicate a user is re-posting something written by someone else) features were all developed by users.

I’m not suggesting Twitter’s going to overtake Google. For if Google’s focus is potentially too broad, Twitter’s focus is definitely too narrow. What might take down Google — or a least take it down a peg — are a bunch of Twitters, each doing a different thing better than the behemoth Google can. And wouldn’t that be the most user-friendly scenario? Smaller companies with a more singular focus tend to provide better customer service. They’re also arguably less vulnerable to data breaches. At the very least, users’ data would be diversified, lessening the potential damage one bad actor or one technical glitch could cause.

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