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Google’s Path

January 7, 2010
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I remember reading a Business 2.0 article about Google in 2004, shortly before the company went public, that discussed in part why the search engine was so successful.  Thanks to Google, I was able to find and reread it within about a minute of searching, even though Business 2.0 was shuttered a few years ago.  Will the stellar search performance that delivered this long-lost article be hindered by Google’s present growth strategies?

Earlier this week, the search giant announced the introduction of the Google phone, aka Nexus One, which is remarkable since it represents Google’s furthest departure from search to date.  The announcement prompted me to look for that Business 2.0 article because I remembered what it cited as being the key to Google’s success: While other search engines made search an afterthought and focused on building all types of other features into their search platforms, Google created a stripped-down web page that provided a simple text box and returned lightning-quick results.

For several years I have wondered if Google’s initial public offering and resulting accountability to stockholders would erode the company’s solitary focus, thereby compromising the value of its core service.  Publicly held companies are notoriously poor innovators, due partly to size and partly to a short-sighted view of quarterly profitability.

It seemed as though Google’s destiny was being written as it branched out into email, maps and various other services.  However, upon reflection, most of these things made sense.  For instance, despite its creepiness, Gmail was a brilliant arena in which to insert search-based advertising results – a simple, non-intrusive suggestion of sites you may be interested in based on the contents of your messages.  I have probably followed more side-bar search results in Gmail than in the traditional search.

Google’s foray into mobile applications seems logical as well.  They are largely just scaled-down versions of their desktop-based applications, and it is clear that the number of information searches conducted from Mobile devices will only continue to grow so a mobile presence ensures that Google’s search product will be platform-agnostic.  Mobile-specific search features like Google Goggles are also highly relevant to the company’s core search business.  While it might seem overly-ambitious to conduct searches of locations based on snapshots, it is this sort of thinking that is likely to extend Google’s relevance well into the future.

At what point, however, is Google’s expansion extending beyond its logical bounds?  Consider Android, Google’s mobile operating system, and Chrome, both the browser and web-based desktop operating system and, of course, the Nexus One phone.  These products are not merely specialized extensions of search, like maps, images, books or email, but are huge expansions that, to the laymen, appear to have no relationship to the company’s core business.

Admittedly, the operating systems present an opportunity to control eyeballs longer and thus sell more ads, but search is Google’s core competency – ads are just the means of monetizing the search.  While Google is still expanding in areas of search that are in turn creating advertising opportunities, if the company continues diverting substantial resources to services or technologies that are focused solely on generating advertising revenue, it will eventually lose sight of why it became successful in the first place.

No doubt, Google will make billions of dollars by selling ads in places wholly unrelated to search.  However, chasing after new real estate for hocking products pulls the company in myriad directions, leading Google down the same path as its predecessors that it once loathed.

[While searching for the Business 2.0 article referenced in this piece, I came across another gem from 2006 that predicts several possible futures for Google and is eerily accurate in a lot of respects.]

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