What is Google doing?

March 22, 2013

A few years ago, web thinker Jeff Jarvis published an homage to the world’s most successful Web search and advertising company titled “What Would Google Do?” These days, the question seems to be, “What is Google doing?”

Google won us over with a revolutionary approach to Web search that made its predecessors seem archaic. It quickly toppled Yahoo as the coolest company on the planet based solely on its efficient and fast way of finding everyone else’s content. Now, though, Google is something entirely different.

What is Google doing? I’m not sure. There may well be a great, bumper-sticker answer. But Google’s actions are too chaotic to come up with a grand, unified theory. It’s toying with apps, mobile software, mobile hardware, mobile phones – and, oh yeah, still dabbles in Web services it decides with zero discussion to terminate with extreme prejudice. It’s one thing to be pulled in all directions as a dance partner, it’s another to have it happen on some carnival ride.

Search has turned out to be only Google’s opening gambit. It still owns just under 70 percent of search market share, and because of that reach about 40 percent of online advertising. For some companies that would be enough, this one, near-perfect service. But Google had bigger ambitions than merely imposing order on the Internet’s chaos.

We got a hint of Google’s plans in 2006, when it paid $1.65 billion – what was its largest acquisition to date – for YouTube. It also gave us Gmail and Google Docs, which dramatically changed users’ attachment to the cloud and boosted their own productivity. A bunch of honest tries, like Wave & Buzz, followed – early misfires in collaboration and social networking. But for all of Google’s innovation and experimentation, it started to feel like Lucy and the football. Rather than keeping what resonated, Google seemed to abruptly end services we had found useful, and had even come to depend on. It shuttered Google Health, a service that maintained all your medical information, and Google 411, a voice-activated directory service.

Part of the problem is our own unhealthy addiction to “free” software. Who doesn’t want a free service like Google Docs? But another issue is that Google has been not so much using the crowd as abusing it. It goes public with too many things and, even worse, gives up on some that worked, could have worked and did exactly what Google presumably wanted: cultivating dedicated users who grew to depend on them.

And that is where cultivating and banking goodwill come in. The trick when you’re disrupting yourself is to bring everyone who loves you along for the new ride without making it seem like you’re a shadow of your former self – even if you are. Facebook managed it, reversing course from the most exclusive network in the world to the least. Apple did it, moving from the “something for everyone” model before Steve Jobs came back from exile to “Think Different.”

The last straw for many was Google’s surprise decision last week to kill Reader, the seven-year-old RSS service that brought RSS into the mainstream. James Fallows makes the case for becoming wary of Google’s very reliability. How, he asks, can you allow yourself to possibly trust Google when the company is so cavalier?

After Reader’s demise, many people noted the danger of ever relying on a company’s free offerings. When a company is charging money for a product …  – as Evernote does for all above its most basic service, and same for Dropbox and SugarSync – you understand its incentive for sticking with that product. The company itself might fail, but as long as it’s in business it’s unlikely just to get bored and walk away, as Google has from so many experiments.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 39 times, shame on me. (My Reuters colleague Jack Shafer also has thoughts on Reader.)

So what is Google up to? Is it a forward-thinking company that embraces its customers as partners or uses them as focus groups it later ignores? 

In recent years, Google has started doing things that aren’t very Google. It flopped in an attempt to market a mobile phone – the Nexus One – but then purchased Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion. Why? It has nothing to show for it except shedding more than 5,000 employees. If it intends to mount an NFC takeover with a slew of iPhone-killing, Google Wallet-empowered Motorola Phones, then Google is better at keeping secrets than Apple. 

It has partnered with a number of hardware manufacturers to kick-start the netbook business with their bespoke Chrome operating system. (I positively reviewed both the low-end and high-end models.) But the Chromebooks are selling worse that Microsoft Surface hybrids (which I didn’t like) – and that’s saying something. Project Glass, Google’s entry into Minority Report eyeware, gets lots of attention – and frankly seems very cool – but as a mainstream consumer device it seems eons away at best.

When did Google become a hardware company? I missed that memo.

Change is scary, but necessary. But explaining the changes that are going to come is a necessary part of doing responsible, do-no-evil business. Google has never been particularly good about customer relations – seriously, did you buy a Nexus One? What it also isn’t good at is bringing us – the users – along. Without projecting a clear idea of what it is really up to – and what’s in it for us in the long run – the company risks the onset of Google Fatigue, especially when there are good or better alternatives to almost everything Google does.

Google’s best move would be to define itself, bringing order to its chaos. There’s a perfect opportunity right around the corner: Google I/O, the company’s annual developer’s conference, in mid-May. I’m saving the date to my Google Calendar right now.

PHOTO: Google co-founder Sergey Brin speaks with attendees following the Life Sciences Breakthrough Prize announcement in San Francisco, California February 20, 2013. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith


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All monopolies and mega corporations are self destructive simply because they are not meant to serve the public to begin with, they only want the public’s money for as little service as possible (operating costs).

Posted by EthicsIntl | Report as abusive

Anyone else feel that Google’s going to have to chew on some court time with their Glass products ? — i.e. getting sued by folks who don’t want to be filmed by those people wearing those products ? — I’m quite aware of the ubiquity of cameras, and the preponderance of people taking photos in public spaces … but until now there was not a general trend of people wandering the streets with cameras strapped on, constantly acquiring video of everyone they encountered everywhere they went — I’m old fashioned, you can call me quaint, but it’s going to be hard to resist the temptation to rip these things off anyone who comes too close to me with a pair of them (of course I’d give them back as soon as the user had gotten me to sign a release form for the right to film me)

Posted by tangogo68 | Report as abusive

I like Google. I have used their products since they didn’t cave into the Chinese Governments demand for private information. This showed me that, unlike other corporations, they have morals and ethics.

For many who want reassuring, conservative, sameness… Google is not the ideal company to do business with. But for right brain thinkers, like myself, I find their seemingly undecipherable moves fun to watch and get swept up in.

I have typed this “opinion” on a Nexus 7, which I use constantly… and I like it alot.

Posted by Manoli | Report as abusive

For those readers actually living in the real world, Google is doing just fine, even without Mr. Abell. Their stock is over $800 per share, up from $400 five years ago. And they made almost $11 billion in net income last year.

Posted by ricktasker | Report as abusive

Google should just sell off what it shuts down if it thinks its not part of the Grand Plan anymore.

Posted by waywalker | Report as abusive

Google is an information aggregator. It exists for 1 reason only: To learn as much as it can about consumers so it can then sell information about (and/or access to) those consumers to the highest bidder.

Every new product and service Google releases is built with that objective in mind. Doesn’t matter if it’s hardware or software…it’s about winning the data collection war.

Posted by hush79 | Report as abusive


Google is a publicly traded business. Since when any technology business has succeeded by coming up with a formula and sticking with it util the cows come home? Business is ain’t a democracy and is not obligated to tell media anything. That’s what makes it a fun gamble, and not everyone got the skin to accept it.


Posted by ArasGeylani | Report as abusive

Whole post is awesome, very nice topic picked by author.
thanks for sharing..

Posted by Jitendra_Shukla | Report as abusive

Clearly, Google is amassing naturally structured data with with to train AIs.

I, for one, will welcome our Googly overlords.

Posted by TokyoJB | Report as abusive


I think you’re kind of missing the point. It’s not about software or hardware, it’s about the interconnectedness of things and creating the most useful web of relevancy for each individual. That’s the agenda they’re following.

I loved Google Wave, but it had to die so that G+ could be born — they took all the things I loved about it, and added things I never could have imagined into its functionality. Reader may be dead, but you can do the same things, plus more, with Google Currents.

Basically, as an early adaptor, we get to be the alpha and beta testers (remember having to send in requests for invites?). I loved Google Reader when I first found it, but it fell out of relevancy for me a few years ago when I started discovering there were apps that aggregate news from my social feeds and fave websites that also had beautiful interfaces. It makes sense that Reader gets to evolve, because we don’t consume news in the same clunky way that RSS delivered it to us before when there was no other expedient alternative.

I really don’t think it’s anything to get hung up about. Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. In that light, it makes sense that they want a stake in mobile, that they’re looking at ways of making computers the wearable “third half” of our brains. You’ll probably be able to pick up a pair of Google Glasses in time for Xmas — I’m sure they’ll be able to read/pull up your favorite RSS feeds while you drink coffee — and then desktops will become just a quaint hub you use to charge your devices, rather than a place you have to go for your news.

Just my two cents,

Posted by KCSanders | Report as abusive

What they’re doing ?
They’re changing the world, working on innovative long term products in all angles.
Yes, it’s “weird”, they’re not concentrating on only milking the cow of Search, or creating the best short-term financial reports for Wall Street, or getting their margins to maximum.
See, that is what happens when people like Larry and Sergi run a (successful) company, and not bozo suits who only know how to make balance sheets look good and seeking for $$$.

Posted by Cwan | Report as abusive

It’s not too hard to think this though a different way – just imagine you’re the most successful company in the history of media and you’re making out like demons in many directions, it’s often blindingly successful but sometimes it’s not. If your pin-up got ditched that’s sad for you but remember, it’s because that media giant has found more profound ways to change the world.

Posted by ccynet.com | Report as abusive

What Google is doing is laying the groundwork for generalised Just In Time Competence. They may not even know it, and you heard it here first……JITC apps know what you know and know what you need to know right now, and they give you the information that you need to be competent for that task just in time, as you need it.

Posted by JTaysom | Report as abusive

Well the article does raise some interesting questions. But there are some good things working for them as well. They feel almost like a young kid blessed with talent and experimenting in every way but leaving the task when the initial interest is over. Google will get out of this phase as the company and its owners mature and understand that they have a social system to manage as well and cant run around crazy.

The issue which I see and most probably the writer didn’t is that based on the huge amount of data that floats in rivers of google … they are able to see the global trends which may not be exactly as of trends in US. These giants know that now they don’t just cater US but the entire globe. That it self is a overwhelming thought, So most of the recent decision are based in the perspective of global audience. What is in store is still to be seen.

Posted by AsifMS | Report as abusive

My company uses – and I personally use – Google for many things. Among them are email, document storage (Drive), collaboration (Docs/Drive) and communication (Talk). What has begun to frustrate us and, frankly, make me nervous is not only the cavalier way they kill services but that the services they have seem to be deteriorating. Key features seem buggy, like sharing documents, and leaves us wondering if Google might be considering killing the service. Aside from search and email Google seems to always be in Beta and we’re getting a little tired of it. Google Fatigue is upon us.

Posted by KMcIvor | Report as abusive