Has Google Jumped the Shark?

Fri, Aug 6, 2010 at 11:32 am

    Milo Yiannopoulos Wonders if the Company’s Glory Days Are Ancient History

    When a big software company starts investing in social, that’s when you know they’re in trouble. So when I saw the rumors this week that Google had bought Slide at an eyebrow-raising valuation of $182 million – after  previously investing over $100 million in social gaming company Zynga – it got me thinking: has Google jumped the shark?

    In the late nineties, Google turned the internet on its head. At the time, it was a strange and mystical entity; a magical place where magical things happened. A halo surrounded the company. Working at Google was something people dreamed about. It was almost as if Google existed on some other, higher plane. They could do no wrong: when they made a mistake, which didn’t happen often, somehow they just got let off, like a favorite daughter who gets an easy ride because she’s the pretty and clever one.

    But that was the nineties. Stung by a series of PR disasters, and dogged by skepticism about their professed corporate culture, it seems to me like Google has become just another technology company. Since 2007, Google has slipped from first to fourth on Fortune magazine’s list of best companies to work for. What were adorable quirks before, like the kooky brand, or the legendarily brilliant canteen food, have been either swept away or discredited, despite the installation of a “Chief Culture Officer” in 2005, whose job it is to maintain the flat, casual structure in its offices.

    Let’s take a look at the headlines Google has been making recently. First, there’s Wave, a high-profile and humiliating disaster. Now, a lot of people  – particularly entrepreneurs – have praised Google for failing fast; that is, being brave enough to call time on a product that wasn’t working before it became a moribund embarrassment. But honestly, Google should never have released it in the first place. And it’s by no means the only failure in recent years.

    “It’s an uncomfortable moment for a Google fan boy,” wrote Jeff Jarvis yesterday. “Google can’t figure out how to launch new platforms. Wave was a bust. Buzz was a bust. Knol was a bust. Orkut was mostly a bust. Brilliant people like Gina Trapani hung their hats on these platforms; she wrote the book on Wave and others started developing it and now the rug’s pulled out from under them because Google didn’t support their development, which is what would have made Wave a success. Evil or merely rude?”

    It’s worth remembering that despite an enormous clutch of acquisitions, search still accounts for 99% of Google’s revenue. Yet critics have accused Google  of failing to invest in their core product, because compared to the rest of the company, the search team is tiny, and the company doesn’t appear to have reacted very quickly to social networks eroding the pre-eminence of search as a content discovery mechanism.

    And, as others have noted, the fact that a company needs the internal slogan “Don’t be evil” – as if to remind itself to be good – tells you something.  Google’s attitude to privacy is a case in point: on December 2009, Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt notoriously remarked: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” A bit creepy, that, isn’t it? If that reflects the company’s attitude to privacy generally, I’m not sure I’d want to entrust a lot of my personal data to it.

    Not that I have much of a choice: Google has admitted to “accidentally” retrieving and storing masses of personal information, including snippets of emails, while trawling for public WiFi spots. The accidents occurred over a period of four years in 30 countries. Interpreting this bombshell charitably, we might say it was a major and avoidable blunder that cost the company a lot of good will and trust. But groups like Consumer Watchdog suggest that Google was just seeing what it could get away with, and that we wouldn’t know about it at all if they hadn’t got busted: “Its computer engineers run amok, push the envelope and gather whatever data they can until their fingers are caught in the cookie jar.”

    The luster is surely coming off the brand, evidenced by its souring relationship with Apple – a sure-fire way to instill mistrust in techies. No longer is Eric Schmidt on Apple’s board, so directly are the two companies now competing: Apple now offers two alternative search engines out of the box on iPhone and there were even hints recently that Apple might be looking to replace Google Maps as the primary mapping software on the device. That would have been unthinkable a year ago.

    But is the company in any real trouble? Alex Hoye, CEO of leading digital  marketing agency Latitude, thinks not: “Have you used search on your smart phone? Paid ads take up about four per cent of your computer screen, but 20 per cent of your smart phone. More smart phones means more searches and more ad sales… After much hype, mobile is finally happening due to Apple and Android amongst other things.”

    “In the UK, they dominate so much in their core business that all the other stuff is noise. Some Google investments have not worked well. But their innovations are relentless: we’ve alpha tested products that emerged from their ’20 per cent’ policy that are superb. And video will do well for them.”

    So maybe it’s just the company’s reputation with the public – and journalists  – that’s taken a battering. Still, one thing’s for sure: the Google halo is well and truly gone. The company can wave good-bye to being given Get Out Of Jail Free cards when it screws up: from now on, we’ll be judging it by the same standards as everyone else.

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