Google owns search, but Facebook owns you. Which is more valuable for selling advertising? I think the next generation of finding things on the internet is going to require the use of both ends of the spectrum, and I believe Larry Page thinks Google is in a more serious crisis than many people realize.
A few weeks ago, Page posted something of a manifesto in his 2012 Update from the CEO. It is filled with great snippets of information about Google’s overall strategy and the philosophy currently driving the company. At the highest level, Page makes a statement about Google’s seemingly disparate products, which becomes a running theme through the rest of his letter:
Creating a simpler, more intuitive experience across Google has been another important focus. I have always believed that technology should do the hard work—discovery, organization, communication—so users can do what makes them happiest: living and loving, not messing with annoying computers! That means making our products work together seamlessly. People shouldn’t have to navigate Google to get stuff done. It should just happen. As Sergey said in the memorable way only he can, “We’ve let a thousand flowers bloom; now we want to put together a coherent bouquet.”
Google understands that it has “a thousand flowers,” which are a bunch of seemingly random but independently useful products, and that they are not connected together in any meaningful way. It also understands that Facebook is the single largest threat to its long term business.
Page’s solution to this problem is an effort to address the abstract thing called “social,” and it is twofold. First, it aims to limit the power of Facebook by creating its own clone social network. Second, it aims to build a “social layer” that connects Google’s existing products into this new network. Google+ is a total re-architecture of how Google approaches its products, users, and customers. For this strategy to work properly, it requires a radical shift of focus from tough engineering problems to tough user experience problems. Google+ is difficult design; it is not difficult engineering. The company’s core competency is of no help to them here. And that’s a big problem.
A more serious problem is even deeper than Google’s need for an unlikely culture shift, and it involves the way that industries tend to be disrupted. In general, major disruption comes from radically new and unexpected outside ideas which would have been impossible to develop through the natural process of the industry’s evolution. When Microsoft wanted to create a tablet PC in the early-mid 2000’s, they attempted to evolve Windows into a tablet operating system. It failed miserably. It turns out that in order to do tablets properly, you have to completely re-imagine the ways in which the software, the hardware, and the user interact. Microsoft’s tablet PC initiative failed because it was an attempt to shoe-horn the desktop version of Windows into something that would work with a totally new set of technologies for user interaction. The iPad succeeded because iOS was built from the ground up to be a gesture-based operating system that plays in concert with the new affordances in touchscreen-based hardware.
Google’s current predicament with social is similar to the one Microsoft faced with its tablet PC initiative. Google has about 150 legacy core products which have slowly evolved into great tools over the past decade, but which were designed and built with the complete absence of consideration for any social interaction. Google+ is an attempt to shoe-horn Google’s legacy products into things that are compatible with a new set of social interaction paradigms.
My point here is that “social” is a point of view from which to design products and not a “layer” that can be easily draped over existing, non-social products. The properties Google has already relaunched with social integration, including Reader and Search + Your World, are almost certainly worse versions of themselves than their predecessors. If you started with the Google+ philosophy and wanted to solve the problem of RSS in a socially-aware way, would you even build a separate product? Maybe. Or maybe not. That’s the point. Evolving Reader into Reader + Social results–at best– in a mediocre experience of both worlds.
It will be extremely difficult for Page to pull off the strategy he outlined in his Update letter. Yes, Google has a thousand blooming flowers. But to make a bouquet, you need to carefully select which flowers to bring together. Google is taking everything–including the weeds–and putting them into a generic vase. Not to mention that no one at Google knows anything about flower arrangements.
Disclosure: I own Google stock.