The Google Hive Mind

As Google turns 10 years old, that important birthday sees the company more powerful than ever before. With its competitors in disarray, the Big G seems likely to grow even further. The secret to its success? For me, it’s what I’ve been calling the “Google Hive Mind. ” Rather than follow a rigid top-down master plan, the company’s direction and success has been shaped by decisions often taken independently of how they’ll benefit the company as a whole. But collectively, those decisions DO form a master plan, a hive mind that dictates what the company will do.

The hive mind has been hugely successful in growing Google’s business through a symbiotic relationship with its customers. But that’s also a weakness: Google may seem too threatening to those same customers, as it grows. As it expands and expands, some of those outside the hive begin wondering if it needs to be constrained.

Part of this is due to the fact that individually, I think Googlers themselves don’t understand how the hive mind appears to outsiders. Thus at 10, stronger than ever, Google also faces its biggest challenge: whether an outside force in the form of government intervention will be brought in to halt the hive.

Going Beyond “Organizing The World’s Information”

Consider what Google provides today. Services range from free email, to online word processing, to video hosting, to name a few. You can buy ads. You can host ads on your web site. You can track site visits. You can measure feed traffic. Oh — and you can search.

Search is where Google started, and even though the mission was back then was (and officially still is) to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” no one at Google was really putting many of today’s non-search services into a blueprint for success. Many of these products emerged from Google’s own internal needs, opportunistic purchases, ideas that curious Googlers with “20% time” suggested and sudden departures into areas not envisioned at first but which made sense as Google evolved.

Don’t believe me? Just consider Google’s philosophy page, where the company cheerfully proclaimed that it would never do things like offer financial advice or online chat. Today, of course, Google offers both Google Finance and the Google Talk chat program. As these “nevers” fell, Google eventually acknowledged that its vision of what it would and wouldn’t do had matured. As it says on the philosophy page today:

When we first wrote these “10 things” four years ago, we included the phrase “Google does not do horoscopes, financial advice or chat. ” Over time we’ve expanded our view of the range of services we can offer — web search, for instance, isn’t the only way for people to access or use information — and products that then seemed unlikely are now key aspects of our portfolio. This doesn’t mean we’ve changed our core mission; just that the farther we travel toward achieving it, the more those blurry objects on the horizon come into sharper focus (to be replaced, of course, by more blurry objects).

Such change was to be expected. But was it really a hive mind that took Google along new paths, more than centralized decisions? I argue yes, and understanding that the decisions were largely decentralized or disconnected to each other as a way to advance Google overall is crucial in knowing how Google could justify each departure to itself as a “safe” path even through externally, outsiders saw the hive suddenly bursting toward them in a looming manner.

AdSense: Enter Ads That Aren’t Search

Let’s start with AdSense. In particular,”AdSense For Content,” the program that puts contextual ads on pages across the web. AdSense is not search. No one performs any type of search in order to trigger these ads. Nor is someone in “search mode” when they see them on pages. Just because you’re reading an article on some subject doesn’t mean you have the immediate need that happens with actual search. That’s why content ads are usually discounted in price.

So AdSense is not search, and when Google launched it in March 2003, it didn’t seem to fit the mission of organizing information. How does putting ads on web pages organize information? As best, Google argued at the time that by funding information, they helped ensure there was more information that could be organized.

It was a stretch, through I can’t deny over the years that AdSense has indeed become an engine that helps many bloggers and others afford to publish useful information. Heck, we use AdSense our own site. Before AdSense, many had to rely on pitiful payments from programs such as Amazon’s affiliate program. So yes, Google has fueled information, along ironically with a lot of search engine spam — low quality pages that seek only to attract traffic from Google in hopes that visitors will then click on Google’s own ads that are shown.

AdSense also exposes Google to the inherent conflict between sending traffic to web sites and also earning money from some of those same websites. There’s a temptation to favor the sites with your ads. And even if you resist that — as I believe Google has done well over the years — there are still those who will always suspect that you do it despite what you say.

So why did Google go ahead? For one thing, it could see others were in the space — and you couldn’t deny that leveraging existing search text ads into contextual ads made sense if you were an ad company. In addition, Google could believe within its own mind that it would never harm the user experience by favoring some sites over others in its results. Indeed, Google would see these things as so separated — so protected by a church-and-state divide — that going forward with AdSense would make sense over possible objections.

Blogger: An Unplanned “Tools” Departure

If it was a stretch to say AdSense was part of search, Blogger was even a bigger stretch. Google acquired Blogger a month before AdSense was rolled out, in February 2003. At best, Google could argue that Blogger allowed it to provide tools for publishers to use — which in turn meant information it could help organize.

Perhaps — but Google itself didn’t have to provide a blogging tool. There were plenty of options out there. By buying Blogger, Google made some of the competing services nervous. It also put the company further off its original mission. But with the opportunity to grab the service at a nice price, Google got it without having any particular plan on how it “fit” into Google. And so the hive grew again in another direction.

Gmail: Google’s Internal Mail System Becomes Consumer Tool

Gmail, when launched in April 2004, was a timely challenge at Yahoo and Microsoft. Both companies were making renewed strikes against Google in the search space, secure that their portal features weren’t under threat. Google’s Gmail struck hard at the cornerstone of portals — email — and forced the two to retool and compete.

But planned challenge? The result of Google sitting down and pondering how to hit back at Microsoft and Yahoo? No.

As Google grew, it started developing tools for itself to use internally. Among these was Gmail. The master plan didn’t include organizing email for consumers. Nor was the plan to develop a better email system that could take on Microsoft and Yahoo in the portal wars. But with a tool available, why not offer it to the masses?

With Gmail, the hive grew into yet another new area, without that move really having been mapped out in advance. It was a natural evolution of letting people develop things that made sense.

“Search, Ads & Apps”

At this point, let’s revisit the original mission of organizing the world’s information. Officially, that hasn’t changed. But in May 2007, Google CEO Eric Schmidt introduced a new tagline: “Search, Ads & Apps. ”

You won’t find this tagline on any of Google’s important overview information, such as its mission statement page or philosophy page. In fact, when Schmidt first put it out there, Google denied it was an official tagline. But Google has continued to use it, such as in releases to investors.

I like the tagline. It’s simple, and it more accurately covers what Google’s evolved into these days: three key business areas. Search, where it started — and Ads and Apps as consequences of where the hive mind took Google.

Newspaper Ads, Radio Ads, TV Ads: The Hive Goes Offline

Back when Google launched, did Larry Page and Sergey Brin ever envision putting ads into newspapers? I suspect not. Yet in November 2006, a test program began doing this which evolved into Google Print Ads.

Suddenly, Google’s dabbling in offline ads. It also offers radio ads and TV ads through other deals and acquisitions that have been made. This fits with the “Ad” mission of the tagline. But it also has caused print, radio and TV publishers — along with agencies that serve them — to worry if this is part of Google’s plan to take over key offline areas and dominate as it has online.

Perhaps there is more centralized control in how these offline forays have come about. I don’t know enough in these cases of how the various programs got going. Did Google intentionally decide it should do radio? Or whendMarc approached them, was it yet another case of Google looking in isolation at the purchase and thinking “ads, make sense — we’ll figure outthe exact details on how it fits later. ” I suspect the latter.

Google Checkout: Scaring Advertisers

I know it may seem a stretch in some examples where I’m saying decisions are made about products individually without considering how they benefit the Google collective. Hopefully, Google Checkout is a more convincing example of this. The program cost Google the goodwill of one of its biggest advertisers, eBay, plus took Google into new areas of conflict, such as concerns that merchants might feel compelled to use it in order to rank better in shopping results at Google or to have a Google Checkout badge as part of their AdWords ads.

Really, Checkout should have been something Google central command said “no” to. Taking on someone like eBay — who also was also a top advertiser — was a bad business move both in terms of how eBay might get upset plus how Google’s other advertisers might react (“Are we next?”).

But on individual level — the product as viewed on its own — Checkout made sense. People needed a better solution for payments. Google could help organize these, which fits in its remit. And by doing so, it might enable more merchants to be online, which benefits everyone along with Google. So the hive expanded again.

Don’t get me wrong. Checkout didn’t happen without careful consideration on the highest levels. Schmidt personally defended it before the launch many times to position it as NOT a challenge to eBay’s PayPal. But I still feel that in the end, the product went forward because the product itself seemed to fill a need that Google wanted solved — not because Google saw Checkout as an important next step for Google’s master plan.

Google Knol: Should Google Have Said No?

I was against Google Knol when it was first announced last December, which was a pretty hard thing to do. It’s the brainchild of Google’s Udi Manber, who is one of the nicest people you could know. He and others on the team felt there’s knowledge not getting out and that Google could provide a tool to help. There’s no part of me that feels Udi or his team viewed Knol as a way for Google to somehow takeout Wikipedia or knock other sites out of Google’s search results, to benefit Google.

And yet, Knol still has the potential to do that. OK, to date it hasn’t — indeed, the fear of what it could become is largely receding behind the fact that it doesn’t appear to be that successful. But the fact that Google pushed ahead with it was one of the things that tipped me toward the entire hive mind idea. To me, this was a perfect case of Google moving ahead with a product because the product itself seemed to make sense, rather than how it contributed to the whole.

To really push the metaphor awkwardly into the real world, when Google views products in isolation, it seems to justify to itself that it makes sense to do them. “Look at this new bed of flowers — we should go here, it makes complete sense!” But it fails to understand that the move into that new flower bed makes the hive even more threatening to others. That more and more flower beds now have Google going into them, making others wonder if they’re next.

Google Chrome & Long-Term Planning

Google Chrome is a real challenge to the hive mind theory. I can argue that it supports it or knocks it down. But theories often don’t fit perfectly, and rather than try to foolishly and naively push mine into everything Google does, I recognize that there are exceptions.

In fact, Google does have a central command, the Executive ManagementGroup that routinely reviews products and decides what to green light. It obviously does have strategic plans. This is a company funding undersea data transmission cables! That’s not something it decided on a whim. Google does think big and long-term.

Steven Levy’s recent article about the birth of Google Chrome actually has some chilling passages for those who worry that Google really does have it all plotted out, how it will take over whatever it plans to conquer:

“The browser matters,” CEO Eric Schmidt says. He should know, because he was CTO of Sun Microsystems during the great browser wars of the 1990s. Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin know it, too. “When I joined Google in 2001, Larry and Sergey immediately said, ‘We should build our own browser, ‘” Schmidt says. “And I said no.”

It wasn’t the right time, Schmidt told them. “I did not believe that the company was strong enough to withstand a browser war,” he says. “It was important that our strategic aspirations be relatively under the radar. “Nonetheless, the idea persisted — and rumors percolated. After a 2004 New York Times article quoted “a person who has detailed knowledge of the company’s business” saying a browser was in the works, Schmidt had to publicly deny it.

But behind the scenes, the subject remained a running argument between Schmidt and the founders.

The bolded part is most important. So one of Google’s strategic goals wasto have its own browser, but that had to be kept secret and in fact publicly denied? That leads to the next question — what else is Google planning strategically that we don’t know about? Will that Google operating system finally emerge, for instance?

Companies need some secrecy, of course. You don’t want a competitor to know about that next killer product you’re about to release. You don’t want them to know when you’re heading into a new area where you hope to gain a first mover advantage.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing soothing in that passage for those who don’t know whether to trust what Google says about what it will or will not do. Remember, Google’s unusual as a company in that it is a deep-pockets disruptor. If Google steers its interests in any particular direction, existing stakeholders there may worry about their future or how their world is likely to change.

If you need proof of this, talk to some book publishers about Google Book Search. Skip the disputes over copyright. Regardless of that, every book publisher now has to decide if they want to participate with books being online through the voluntary, contribute your own books program. A few years ago, the technology seemed years away from many having to even think about this. But now, they can stay out of Google Book Search if they want, but they still have to ponder whether there’s a business argument to participate. Google literally has dragged book publishers into the deep end of the web before many even had their toes wet.

Getting back to Chrome, it shows how Google does indeed contemplate what products should be pursued and launched at a high level. It suggests that those who worry about Google’s ambitions coming at them in a directed fashion should indeed be wary. But I also remain convinced that many of the directions that Google has gone — expansions into areas that are also seen as strategic moves — still come more out of the hive mind being at work. I think that’s important for any Google watcher, because otherwise it’s easy to misinterpret some of the company’s moves.

Last Straw, Partnering With Yahoo?

In June, Google agreed to a partnership where Yahoo will carry some of its ads. The deal is probably the biggest gamble Google’s taken in its 10 years of existence. By partnering with Yahoo, it may very well tip the scales for the US government (as well as perhaps others) to question whether Google is too dominant.

Yes, Yahoo will carry whatever ads it wants from Google. Yes, (and I agree), prices aren’t being fixed. Yes, it seems odd that Yahoo couldn’t choose to work with Google if it wants to. Why would Google, as Brin told me last week, not allow Yahoo to sit at its table? Anyone can apply to carry AdSense using a self-service form, Brin pointed out. Yahoo could have come to Google that way, though he joked it would have been kind of rude not to actually talk to them in person.

Just looking at the deal independently of the Google collective, it makes sense to Google when you consider all the caveats I’ve named. Add to the fact that I’m sure Google believes the deal will help Yahoo be a stronger competitor and that Google really honestly does wants a strong competitor. A good competitor keeps Google sharp, plus it allows Google to have a strong position but still demonstrate that it is not all powerful.

But if the hive wants competition, why not sit back and let a Microsoft-Yahoo deal happen? Well, there’s competition and then there’s competition — Microsoft is not viewed as a “fair” competitor but rather one that has to be constantly watched for trying to pull fast ones. Better to enable a “fair” competitor than do nothing and let the bad guys win. And Google could further rationalize that in doing so, it was doing the right thing for the internet as a whole.

In the end, Google said “yes” to Yahoo — and believes in doing so, in looking at the deal on its own, that it has made the right choice for everyone. But to many outsiders, it will seem yet again that Google central command is seizing more ground for the company.

Customer Symbiosis

A favorite Seinfeld episode of mine is The Opposite, when George decides to do the opposite of his normal instincts. Regular George was a generally selfish, cautious, calculating person. Anti-George decides to do the exact opposite of whatever “old” George might have done. And in doing so, he ends up having a lot of success.

Google has long been likened to Microsoft, in terms of how it has grown and its potential for dominance plus the fear such dominance can bring. But Google is also the anti-Microsoft. In many ways, it does the exact opposite of what Microsoft might do in some situations — which is tie things in for Microsoft’s own benefit, rather than that of its customers.

Make no mistake — I like Microsoft, love many of its products and have much admiration for what the company has done over the years. But I generally get a feeling the company spends too much effort plotting how its own products can reinforce the greater Microsoft whole rather than just being great products on their own.

The underlying theme with Google is the user. Google does things in the interest of the user. It doesn’t show too many ads and avoids irrelevant ones, because this might upset users. In doing so, it secures their attention for the ads it does show. It doesn’t try to force them to use Google in Chrome because it knows that many users would object to that. By staying open, it actually helps generate loyalty (since many users will choose Google or have chosen it already). You can pull your email out of Gmail without charge, and that defuses the issue of gadflies who complain Google wants to lock-up your data, as well as the concerns of the tiny number of people who really do want to remove their content.

This selfish sacrifice has served Google well. For the typical consumer, removed from debates over Google being too dominant in advertising or other issues, Google remains that trusted friend that does the job. Google almost proudly proclaims that it has no lock-in on users and that those users could chose another search engine at any time. But that’s like saying people could give up their friends at any time. They’re not going to do that, unless that friend has somehow been extremely bad to them. And Google’s too smart to be that bad.

In another way, Google is a habit, a good habit that no one feels a need to kick.

The Irony Of Success

It’s a perplexing situation. Google aligns itself with users, builds good products, hasn’t followed some carefully crafted plan to get where it is now but thanks to the hive mind, it gets there anyway. It seems so successful, so full of future potential, that I find myself wanting it to say “no” to itself, to define some “no go” areas that will be Google-less.

It’s a gut feeling, not a rational one. Nor does it seem a fair one. Perhaps it’s out of fear for Google itself. Watching the company grow — and the conflicts continue — and the competitors weaken — I worry that the government will step in to control Google and ruin things more than help. I wrote a fictional After The GoogleAntitrust Breakup piece last year. Will that become reality, if Google can’t say “no” to itself?

But what should it say “no” to? When put on the spot, I couldn’t say myself. “Give me a list,” Brin asked me last week, when we talked briefly about these concerns. What shouldn’t Google be doing, staying out of?

I don’t know exactly. Certainly I don’t want it taking steps toward being a publisher, or competing with those who it also points to in its search results. This was my problem with Knol. This was the problem I recently addressed about Yahoo trying to be a publisher and a search engine (see Yahoo: How Open When You Compete With Others?).

Do I think it should get out of AdSense now? At this point, probably not. But I do think Google should tell publishers exactly how much people are paying to be on their sites plus how much it is keeping. That alone may help improve competition. Competitors could then vie to out-bid Google for publishers.

I also think it will likely have to open up a lot more about pricing within AdWords to engender more trust if it goes ahead with Yahoo, as is likely to be the case.

Google’s not perfect, of course. Success isn’t guaranteed. Google Answers and Google Catalogs never took off. Google Video was easily eclipsed by YouTube, which Google later bought. Orkut remains big in Brazil, which doesn’t make Google seem any less a failure in the social space when compared to Facebook. It is not dominant in all areas, so the idea it should say “no” to itself can also seem absurd.

Search, Ads, Apps & . . . .

As Google goes into its 11th year, I see the company picking up the mantle from Microsoft in the way that Microsoft seemed to carry on from IBM. It’s Google’s era, in all likelihood. Of course, this is exactly what Rich Skrenta was saying back in January 2007, with his insightfulWinner-Take-All: Google and the Third Age of Computing post. Over a year later, Microsoft’s only gone from bad to worse in the quest against Google.

Really consider what Skrenta wrote at the end of his piece:

Nobody even bothers asking why IBM isn’t a player in consumer search. IBM and consumer websites just don’t have anything to do with one another. PC software and websites don’t have anything to do with each other either.

Exactly. Microsoft has no predetermined destiny to be successful in consumer search any more than IBM had one to be successful with consumer PCs. And eventually, I’ll post a longer article looking at why Microsoft’s software-centered focus makes me think it will continue to struggle in the space.

But for now, ironically for Microsoft to really compete, it would have to let go more from actively trying to attack Google. Perhaps success on the fast moving internet means having a hive mind, a fuzzy business logic where you look more at products individually rather than how they contribute to a master plan. Or maybe that’s what you do if you want to be a giant on the internet, offering more than one product.

I don’t know. I do know that anyone trying to plot Google’s next move and look ahead likely will be vexed given this is a company that itself doesn’t always know what its next move is going to be. Brin himself acknowledged that much of what the company does tends to be decentralized.

Search, Ads & Apps is where we’re at today with Google. What gets added to that list is anyone’s guess. And even if Google has ideas, the past 10 years have demonstrated time and again that even Google can’t predict its own future.

Ten years old. Happy Birthday, Google! You’ve accomplished so much and earned praise that’s well deserved. As individual Googlers, you should be proud of all you’ve done. But also never forget to think harder about how people may view you from outside the Googleplex. Sadly picture the worse, and that might help you on the quest to be the best. And as a company, as you go into your teens, here’s hoping that somehow Google gets the balance right with growing, serving users and keeping the trust all around.

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Google: Business Issues | Google: General


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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