Google searches for an IPO answer

Google is coming under intense scrutiny as its IPO gets near - but can its unique approach keep it the most popular search engine?

As Google advances spiderishly towards its IPO, the prospect of one last multibillion dollar dot-com bonanza has stirred long-forgotten emotions in the heart -- assuming the existence of such an organ -- of financial analysts. Hope, excitement and perhaps even a spot of greed can be observed flickering behind the rimless spectacles of the moolah mafia. This time, those feelings are tempered by a new and entirely unfamiliar instinct: caution, born of guilt over what happened last time.

OK, perhaps guilt is too strong a word -- it could just be fear born from bubble fallout. Whatever the source, the caginess of the market and the uniqueness of the IPO has provoked some very critical examinations of the company and its service. One of the more sober analyses came from Fortune Magazine last month, which spent most of the summer paying a great deal of attention to the men behind the curtain. Its conclusion: Google has become arrogant, disorganised, unfocused, a madhouse that's a tough place to work and a tough place to do business with. It's quadrupled in size in just over a year, with nearly one and a half thousand employees, but is still run like an engineer's playground.

It's also got no lock-in -- if Microsoft comes up with some superb search engine, nothing will stop Google users from flocking overnight. And there may well be no truth in the rumour that infamous law firm SCO, Grabbit and Runne is going to sue Google for the heinous crime of using open-source software, but who wants that sort of nonsense floating around?

Google has many problems out on the Web as well, the most visible being the phenomenon called the Google Dance. Commercial Web sites know full well the importance of a high ranking on Google, and constantly adjust their details accordingly. The result, as we all know, is pages and pages of nearly identical Amazon associates all offering exactly the same products at exactly the same prices, when all you wanted was some information (remember that?). Google is painfully aware of this, and tries to adjust its algorithms to spot the rank profiteers and demote them -- leading to the eponymous dance, a regular wholesale change in positions.

The trouble here is that some non-commercial Web sites, despairing of ever being found among the commercial throng, have also adopted their tactics -- with some success. But when Google's mysterious masters change the spell to flush out the bad guys, the good guys who've had to play along get hit just as hard. Rumour has it that the latest big reorganisation, which took place last month and caused many cries of pain, is the last for a while.

Then there are the big partnerships that have done so well for Google in the past: AOL, Yahoo and others, all of whom use Google technology. Here, the sheer size and success of Google has left its pals nervously looking around for alternatives they can better control and who have fewer worrying tendencies to develop into a competitor.

So hold on -- if the company is expanding out of control, run like a anarchist commune, periodically upsets half the companies who rely on it for business and vulnerable to the whims of Bill Gates, AOL, Yahoo, Darl McBride and quite possibly that bloke down the chip shop, why is anyone even thinking of buying in?

Branding is one reason. Google is now one of the most recognised and trusted brands on the Net -- which, these days, means most of the commercially active world. It's utterly confident in this: witness the way it casually toys with its logo in a world where even changing the shade of blue in the word Microsoft needs a thousand metric tonnes of meetings.

But more importantly, that brand rests on exactly the same hippyish libertarian enthusiasm which drives grown suits to set up moth farms in their thousand-dollar suits rather than join in. This is exemplified by one of the Google paradoxes: who is its customer? Conventional thinking says that the advertisers who use Adwords -- the software that displays paid-for links to the right of the main search results -- and Adsense, which does the same for other sites -- are Google's customers. That makes sense, given that they're the ones paying the money.

Google thinks differently (now, there's a slogan). It has the attitude that the users who come to Google for their search results are the customers, and it bases what it does on that. An internal rule at Google that's come to represent a large part of their thinking is "Do no evil" -- that's to say, don't do anything that makes life less pleasant for the user. Engineers are expected to go and do things they think important, and the things that are important are those that make the users happier.

If Google is right, then this will ensure exactly the sort of lock-in that other companies try to engineer by stealth. People will stay with Google because Google holds them in greater respect than any other entity. That will drive the technology that will keep the company ahead of anything that AOL or Microsoft can build, because those other companies are always thinking of money first -- the breadheads. Huge numbers of happy users are exactly what the advertisers want. And the chaos inside? Well, growing pains and the price of creativity.

How well this will work after an IPO -- when shareholders will demand their regular feed of money and power -- remains to be seen. Other big, successful private companies have smartened up and joined the world of proper, grown-up corporate ways in order to have an IPO and withered on the vine thereafter. And how well it will work when the competitors really get their acts together is equally unknowable. But Google has demonstrated that the simple idea of giving the punters what they want remains a powerful model for carving a unique niche: if it can hold hard to that, it will thrive regardless of the machinations of the markets.

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