Welcome back, Larry! When you were last CEO of Google in 2001, the company was a much loved scrappy underdog with a bright future. Ten years later, you’re coming back to the helm. Things have changed. You’re soon to be steering a massive battleship that’s taking on water from a number of hits over the years. Let’s talk damage control.
We’re Not Monopolists!
While you were gone, Google has grown — and grown — and grown. In 2001, you weren’t the most popular search engine on the planet. You faced a field of daunting competitors. You didn’t have a mobile operating system (Android), nor a laptop one (Chrome OS) nor your own browser (Chrome). Hell, AdWords was still just starting and AdSense didn’t even exist.
Today, powerful people, companies and organizations wonder if you’ve grown too much. The EU is investigating Google on anti-trust grounds. Your good friends over at Microsoft are chuckling over helping to cause that, plus getting a little payback.
In the US, you face challenges. The Department Of Justice didn’t like Google’s plans to partner with Yahoo, driving you to abandon that deal. The New York Times decided you were so big that might be some sense in regulating your search algorithm. Over in Texas, the attorney general there sees some upside in investigating you for potential anti-trust issues.
This, perhaps, is the biggest challenge that Google faces. You’ve got to convince an array of interests that Google doesn’t need to be regulated or broken up.
We Get Social!
Remember that scene in The Social Network where Mark Zuckerberg was busy whipping up the predecessor to Facebook in his dorm room? After that bad date? With a beer in hand, and talking in a way that only Aaron Sorkin could write? Yeah, that was awesome.
Well, Mark wasn’t even at Harvard when you were last CEO. But since then, he’s built this giant social empire that’s going on 600 million people strong, with activity that nearly matches or surpasses the activity on Google, depending on whose metrics you’re looking at and exactly what metrics you choose.
Damn, I mean, talk success — they made a movie about Facebook which is younger than Google! We’re still waiting for a Google movie (memo to past Larry: find a way to make Sergey’s shares worthless — allegations of screwing over your friends is good Hollywood fodder and earns your praise during the Golden Globes).
It’s not that Google isn’t successful. It’s fantastically successful! It’s a cash cow, and one that Facebook’s success isn’t actually harming. But Facebook’s hot! Social’s hot! And Google, well, your social strategy has been a mess.
It was about this time last year you rolled out the disaster that was Google Buzz. Meanwhile, you’ve got social basket cases littered all over the place. Tell me again. Is my Google Maps activity linked to my Google Buzz activity linked to my Blogger activity linked to my Picasa activity linked to my Latitude activity? And why the hell is Google Hotpot, which is about location, not called Hotspot? And does my activity there link back to all those other Google social things I mentioned?
I follow this stuff more closely than a typical Google user, and I can’t remember it off the top of my head. There’s the rumored Google Me / Emerald Sea / Google +1 project that Eric swears isn’t a social network but rather a layer (like how Google Checkout wasn’t a payment system to rival PayPal, even though it was?).
Maybe this new Google social things will unify things. But when? Soon, hopefully, because all those people who keep leaving Google to work at Facebook are probably keeping them pretty appraised of what you’re doing.
You’ve got to deliver something substantial, something definitive in social. Otherwise, you need to give it up — because despite Google’s saying it celebrates failures, let’s face it — you really don’t. Failures also make everyone nervous, from your investors to your employees.
We’re Successful In Mobile!
Two years ago or so, it seemed like Apple had the whole smartphone thing tied up. But your Android operating system has been a huge success story, with Android users now nearly matching or surpassing iPhone users, depending on which metrics you look at.
So I’m crazy, right, suggesting that you have to defend that you’re successful in mobile! But you do. Eric knows. He’s been beating his head against the wall trying to explain to those pesky analysts that even though Google doesn’t make a cent off the Android operating system, being linked to all those devices — hell, being part of any mobile device — is making Google plenty successful.
The problem is, they don’t believe it. Meanwhile, Jobs and gang over at Apple punch out their latest product, and there are lines out the door. Shit, people with iPhones less than six months old will shortly be trashing them and taking a hit for the identical phone just to have it with Verizon. Hey, I get that. I’ve suffered with AT&T, too. But when’s the last time you heard of a line out the door for some Android phone?
Of course, getting those lines is nearly impossible. There are so many! And they come so fast! There’s no pent up demand, long waiting period. Then carriers hobble them in a way that Apple won’t allow, because Google can’t throw your own weight around in the same way. That wouldn’t be “open” — or you won’t throw your own weight around, and open is yet again a handy excuse. So all the drawbacks that the open Android fragmentation brings rains down upon you as more seeming failures, to some.
The good news is that Android really is a success. It’s one of your biggest homegrown success, and you should shove it down the throats of anyone who says Google is a one-hit wonder. There’s just so many doubters still out there. You’re in a constant battle against the Apple distortion field, and that’s not going away.
We’re Ready For The Operating System Revolution!
Eric kept fighting you and Sergey not to do an operating system. You both won. Twice. You’ve got Android and Chrome OS! (Hey, the whole Android is more for touch-based systems defense? Google TV runs on it, and I don’t touch my set — so I’m not buying it).
The operating system thing has always felt like a way for Google to help insulate itself from what you saw as your big threat, Microsoft. Microsoft Windows was by far the most popular operating system out there. Internet Explorer was the most popular browser. If Microsoft got all nasty, what’s the backup plan?
Having your own OS seems to have fit well within all the other things Google has assembled over time — securing better bandwidth pipelines, pushing to ensure those pipelines were “neutral” (except for the mobile networks, which has earned you justified jeers), even providing free internet access.
The problem is, Microsoft’s not the OS threat — Apple is. Remember Rupert Murdoch? Yeah, the guy who calls you vampires, who’s cut some of his newspapers off from feeding your content sucking search engine (his metaphor, don’t blame me). Who’s he buddy buddy with on that new publication, The Daily? The all iPad magazine — now a few days late, but still expected shortly.
Yeah, an iPad-only publication. Because we’re all about the apps these days. Even Oprah’s got one. Robert Scoble was telling me last week how popular it is. I paid the $4 or whatever just to find out (for me, not so awesome). Plenty of other Oprah fans have, as well — even though a lot of the same damn articles, as best I can tell, are available on the Oprah Magazine web site for free.
The masses, they love those apps. And Apple sure loves them, because it provides a way for Apple to carefully control what happens on its own devices plus earn a bit. Apple charges Oprah, getting a slice of her sales. How much did you make for sending all those people over to Oprah for free. Yeah, zilch — along with accusations from some publishers that you’re leeching off of them by sending them all that free traffic.
Sure, you get a web browser that lets you find plenty of non-app packaged material (unless we’re talking Flash) — but the app revolution is definitely going on. The walls are going up. How Google going to cope with that? That’s the OS challenge that Google faces, showing that you’re not going to be cut-off or locked out from the growing walled garden of iOSLand. Not to mention FacebookLand.
Android’s a great counter balance, but seriously — all those different Android markets? And you don’t keep track of all my apps? As for Chrome OS — we’ll see. Honestly, Chrome OS still seems to offer less than having a “real” computer with a browser. But maybe you’ll bring more people fully into the cloud, and they’ll love configuration free computers.
Goodness knows you’ve got Microsoft worried. Have you seen those “To the cloud” commercials? What the hell does that mean!
We’re Really Not Evil!
Don’t Be Evil. Remember that slogan? Yeah, plenty of people don’t believe it, anymore. Heck, Google itself doesn’t – there was that whole “evil scale” thing back when you decided to go into China.
It was nice wanting to be the Ben & Jerry’s of technology. I admire the sentiment behind it. I know plenty of Googlers still believe in that philosophy. But outside Google, plenty no longer buy it.
It must be nice to be Facebook, which never made such a claim. I don’t know if you have to formally recant the philosophy or not. I do know that in my years of watching Google, I’ve never seen so many people as I do now who are worried about your company, negatively talking about you, generally not viewing you as a positive force.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the vast majority of people — certainly the vast majority of your customers — do love you. Like really love you, and your products. One report even showed your brand reputation rising last year from the previous year. But I think more people than ever before just see you as another big company. More people than I’ve ever heard before trash talk you.
That’s a problem.
Some of it is a consequence of just getting bigger, either through being successful or through your deliberate choice to seemingly expand into any area you want, without boundaries. I doubt you’ll ever get back to that lovable scrappy underdog image you once had. But stemming the seemingly growing number of people who actively fear you should be a priority.
Hey, how about hiring an ombudsman empowered to look into complaints about Google and report back to the public? Like now.
We’ve Still Got Brains!
Perhaps you’ve noticed a significant number of Googlers now work at Facebook. That’s not so good. OK, in a few years, you’ll have a good laugh when Facebook inevitably starts losing employees to the next great start-up (heck, they’re already losing people). I’m sure the five people left over at Yahoo are having a similar chuckle over your current predicament.
Still, you need to curb the image that Google isn’t the place to be. Yes, you still attract plenty of talent. Yes, plenty of existing talent is still happy staying. But externally, the impression is different.
We Still Have Great Start-Up Ideas!
A few years ago, Google talked about how you had the perfect team sizes to maintain a start-up culture. The famed 20% time for engineers was also seen vital (I always felt sorry for the non-engineers who don’t get that. Heck, I always felt a bit sorry for non-engineers at Google period, just because of the general engineer worship).
Clearly, with talk about the CEO change helping to speed things up internally, the whole perfect team thing hasn’t been working. It’s also hard to think of new hot things that have emerged out of Google recently — things that make you go “wow!” Then again, it’s not like Facebook rolls out stuff that make me go “Wow” either.
Still, it’s something people expect of Google. We need to have a more visible flow of those great new ideas — or you need to do a better job highlighting them. You definitely don’t want former Googlers heading off and then creating hot start-ups that you want to buy (Twitter, Foursquare).
We’ve Got Great Search!
Remember search? That was Google’s first product. It remains Google’s most important and profitable product. And apparently, your search sucks.
I know it sucks, because I’m reading a headline or tweet or post almost every day now from someone who tells me it must be so. Meanwhile, I keep getting calls from mainstream news reporters doing stories asking why your search sucks.
Actually, I know it doesn’t suck as bad as some say. I know it’s actually works pretty well for most people, for most queries. But this perception shift is amazing.
When you were last CEO, it was widely assumed Google was the best in search, even if you weren’t always. You got the benefit of the doubt. Things were rounded up to the positive.
These days, more and more people seem to be rounding down to the negative.
You’ve got noise in your search. A lot of it. You need to demonstrably show that things are improving on the search front. Squelch the noise. Remind people of why they came to Google in the first place — you gave good search.
Some Closing Thoughts
In more seriousness, it’s not as if Page has actually been gone for the past ten years and is unaware of the issues I’ve described above. He knows them and much more. But now Page is inheriting them from Schmidt. As CEO, he’s the front line person now for explaining what Google’s doing in these areas, defending it where it needs defending and ultimately being held accountable should it fail to perform.
Make no mistake. Google is a rich company, in actual cash, in quality products and in talent. It faces challenges, as any company entering its “adult” years can be expected to have. The question is, how well will the leadership shuffling tackle those challenges.
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