In Defense of the Google: Spray and Pray Is Run and Gun

June 28, 2011

I liked “Google’s SOE (Strategy of Everything).” The write up rather gently explains that Google is doing too much, has limited management expertise, and has managed to make its online ad business support everything from wind farms to algorithms. I did quite like this statement too:

In practice, “all things to all people” invariably becomes too many different services in too many market segments. “We don’t know what will work or for whom, so we’ll spray and pray. We’ll shoot arrows in the dark and when the sun rises, we’ll paint a target around the one that lands in a good spot. We’ll declare victory and raise a second round while claiming that this had been our strategy all along.”

I have shifted my research efforts in the last 18 months, so I am not immersing myself in Google’s goodness as I did in the period between 2003 to 2009. I grew impatient waiting for the Googzilla to give birth to the nifty products and services described in Google’s technical papers and patent applications. Google was in a position to bring more order to real estate, online video, professional directories, and many other content niches that were under served or ill served. I even spent some time courtesy of a client writing about Google’s video technology. I thought Google was going to be able to build connections across a fragmented, craft business because—gosh darn it—the technology was visible when I ran certain queries on Google’s public Web site. I loved demoing the recipe service, the Baltimore real estate service, the flight options service, the medical information service, and many more. But nothing ever happened. I grew bored and moved on to more interesting research areas. Sure, I bumped into the Google, but I don’t focus on Google. In fact, I don’t too much about the company any more.

Source of a Milton Paradise Lost  illustration: http://www.inspirationalposter.org/poster-6635-6093242/paradise-lost-john-milton-satan-beelzebub-are-abyss-raging-fire-giclee-print/

From this uninformed and reasonably objective position, let me offer a partial response to the most accurate observations of Jean-Louis Gassée.

Focus and Competition

Google’s success in search had less to do with Google and more to do with the magnificent ineptitude of Hewlett Packard, the company that ended up owning AltaVista.com and some pretty smart folks and a ton of technology. But portal fever was upon the land in 1996. Google was able to get some loving insight from the Clever system, from the void created as Yahoo and others chased the portal rainbow, and from inattentive HP which provided disgruntled employees with a chance to do some search work for the Backrub/Google crowd.

Because Google had essentially zero competition, the company’s founders and some of the engineers rightly concluded the company was invincible. I am reminded of the John Milton line, “ Execute their airy purposes.” Paradise Lost. Book i. Line 430.

From the git go, Google saw its rush forward as evidence of the company’s essential rightness. Google concluded, “Organize the world’s information.” The “do no evil” angle was part of the hubris which Milton described rather well. Without competition, why not focus on using technology to herd the digital doggies into the Google Bar None corral?

Once the twig is bent and the tree grows, changing that tree is time consuming and may be impossible. That’s where Google is today: a big oak planted in the soil of today’s business climate. The focus remains like a forgiving 18 millimeter Olympus Zuiko lens. But` in  today’s environment the competition is attentive, and Google is not mentally set up to accept that Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and some other outfits are just better at marketing, technology, and innovation. I am confident Google can adapt. After all, managing a company is not much more that tweaking a numerical recipe. That’s just logical.

Quality and User Experience

One of the interesting findings from my research for my three Google studies was that Googlers do not understand why regular people have so much trouble performing “trivial tasks.” I quite like the phrase “a certain blindness,” and it does apply to Google. The SOE strategy uses the word “quality”, but that is a buzzword that has different meanings in different contexts.

For example, quality at Google is algorithmic. Let me give an example. If there are lots of users of Gmail and the usage is growing, the volume of data is growing, and the clicks on ads are growing, we have metrics. When quality is defined in terms of actions like clicks and data, more is better. Therefore, as the metrics rise, the quality is evident from the data. The fact that the interface is a mess does not correlate with the usage; therefore, the subjective comments about Gmail user controls are at odds with the metrics which define quality. So Google grades Web content via algorithm. If humans fiddle, then the unpredictability of Panda roils the search landscape. Google sticks by its view that its method is right. Tautological? Sure, but that’s how metrics Math Club members work.

My research surfaced a number of examples of the confusion Googlers experienced when the algorithms were not perceived as logical. I imagined hearing Spock on Star Trek remind humans that Captain Kirk or the good doctor was not logical. If a Googler can understand it, then the approach is “correct.” Disagree without data. The Google logic does not accept illogic. So if humans can’t figure out the interface, just use predictive search to give the non Googler what he or she really wants. Logical and not likely to change any time soon.

Facebook

In Google’s defense, how can Math Club members relate to Facebook type services. These, as noted in the section above, are not logical. Google had a head start with social services. Remember Orkut? I do and so do some Brazilian law enforcement professionals. Google stumbled out of the gate. Buzz was supposed to be a fresh start. The Math Club muffed that service and then Wave. Google did not find a way to catch Facebook. Googlers began to jump ship, so now Google is “faced” (yes, bad pun) with having to compete with former Googlers who are helping Mr. Zuckerberg build a giant walled garden of members. There are many implications of the walled garden model, but Google does  not have either the time nor the social touch to close the gap between it and Facebook quickly. The Math Club president may not have a date for the prom this year or next I fear. Google is trying, however. Effort, as in my grade school, deserves a grade too. Let’s give Google credit for trying. “I think  I can. I think I can. I think I can” is echoing in my mind.

Fear Unfounded

People fear what they don’t understand. I am comfortable with Google. I know how to search without having my results filtered. I know how to enable the Firefox add in for anonymity. I know how to log out of my Google account no matter how many windows keep displaying my alleged user name. The backlash against Google is part of the rite of passage. ATT went through it. IBM went through it. Now Google will go through it. No one needs to fear Google. The company, MOMA, the Googlers, the need for so much brevity that Googlers cannot communicate effectively with one another—these are reasons to feel comfortable with Googzilla.

Google is now its own worst enemy. I think that as the hiring process continues, the legacy of the original Google will be diluted. As a result, the pride that Milton described as one facet of Satan’s character will diminish. The new Google will be a different company. Regulators have not much to regulate because Google will change more quickly than governmental inquiries can react. No worries..

Wrap Up

The SOE analysis is filled with provocative ideas. I think Google is home free, clean as a whistle, and just misunderstood. Maybe a Math Club member for president?

Stephen  E Arnold, June 28, 2011

From the leader in next-generation analysis of search and content processing, Beyond Search.

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