Pros & Cons Of Google’s “Darwinian Approach” To Products

This year is the 200th anniversary of naturalist Charles Darwin’s birth. I bring that up because Google’s approach to product decision-making has always struck me as “Darwinian.”

The company introduces new products and services, generally without much promotion, and then it’s a version of survivor or “survival of the fittest.” Another appropriate metaphor here is the “free market.”

If Google’s products don’t gain traction they may disappear back into the Google “engeneering” pool or form the basis for new species, as with the recent shuttering of Dodgeball and opening of Latitude. The company seems to rarely get involved, deus ex machina style, to market its new products or otherwise boost their profile among users, with a few exceptions. But Google used to give its products lots of time to develop an audience or fail. That cycle is now compressing, it would appear, in the recession.

Virtual world Lively is probably the shortest-lived project in Google history: about five months from public debut to death. That story, as well as discussion of the rationale behind why Google “pulls the plug” on products, appeared in an article over the weekend from the NY Times. As an aside, Bradley Horowitz, former Head of Advanced Products for Yahoo, makes one of his first “public appearances” as a Google employee in the piece:

“We didn’t see that passionate hockey-stick growth in the user base,” said Bradley Horowitz, Google’s vice president for product management. Management decided that the half-dozen people working on Lively could be more productive elsewhere.

The product development culture at Google is lauded in the article as rewarding risk taking. Google’s Marissa Mayer has also discussed in the past Google’s willingness to try things and put out imperfect products, both to gauge audience interest and reaction and to help more rapidly develop the products themselves. She’s referred to it as “iterative product development.”

This “iterative” or “risk-taking” strategy has paid off well for Google. But Google’s reluctance to market or otherwise promote its products has caused some that could have been much more successful to fall short of their potential. Two examples that come to mind are Google Checkout and GOOG-411.

In fact, in a departure, Google did limited, early advertising for GOOG-411, its free directory assistance substitute with some outdoor ads in a few markets. In consumer surveys I’ve been involved with, however, there’s very limited awareness and usage of GOOG-411 (that’s even more true of competing products such as Microsoft’s 1-800-Call-411). That may be just fine for Google, which has used the service for a range of internal purposes, such as training speech recognizers for its mobile voice search offering. It may also be that the growth Google is seeing in usage is enough to justify the continued existence of the service.

I believe, however, a bit more traditional awareness building would dramatically boost adoption of GOOG-411 and that it could even become an effective advertising vehicle later — a place to put some of those audio ads now that Radio Ads is going away.

Checkout is another curious example of what I’m describing. The payments system was launched in Q2 2006 amid widespread discussion of whether it was a “PayPal killer.” Two and a half years later that could hardly be less true.

More than most new Google products, Checkout received a number of indirect and low-key efforts at promotion. It was featured, of course, on the Google home page and in B2B online ads a number of times. There were also several modest attempts at consumer promotion.

Yet, when it launched, Checkout was treated by Google as a strategic offering. But the company largely failed to explain the product to consumers and make the case for why they should use it. There were some very powerful consumer features in Checkout that Google just never got across effectively. I wrote at the time Checkout launched:

The key for Google is to establish trust and build consumer acceptance and adoption right out of the gate. I think the entire system hinges directly on this. And part of that will be marketing and promotion of the system — something that Google has been loathe to do with any sustained focus for any of its recently introduced products.

Now Google is compelling consumers to use Checkout to buy paid apps in the Android mobile market. Who knows? This may finally give the service the boost it really never got from Google initially.

Related Topics: Channel: Retail | Features: Analysis | Google: Business Issues | Google: Checkout | Google: Employees | Google: General

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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