Google's Napoleonic Complex

Is the ghost of Napoleon walking the corridors of the Googleplex?
Written by Jeffrey S. Young, Contributor
What is wrong at the world’s search darling?  Is the ghost of Napoleon walking the corridors of the Googleplex?

A string of pedestrian products continues to belch out of the Googleplex.  The latest unnecessary, ill-conceived, and poorly delivered service is the new Google Finance.  I’m not going to bother even criticizing this one in its particulars—if you want to read a detailed dissection check out my former Forbes.com partner Dave Churbuck’s commentary about it…or read the string of disappointed comments by many others that were collected at Memeorandum

The details of this particular snooze job don’t really matter.  The big issue underlying this latest pedestrian effort is deeper: If Google is starting to create and deliver its own content, and will weight its own content to show up higher in search rankings, what does that do to the explicit promise of the company to deliver search results transparently? New but dull, derivative products appear from all sides. Sure there are always those sponsored links, and SEO’s (Search Engine Optimizers) who’ve pored over the fine print have heretofore been able to improve their rankings with some judicious bending/understanding of the rules, but at root we all believed that the search results were scientific and mathematical, and pretty much impervious to “The Fix.”

Now comes this slide down the slippery slope of venality.  Many on the conservative side of the political spectrum already claimed Google search results were skewed to the left—and Amazon’s admissions this week didn’t help matters either.  With this finance site Google releases a product that promises to deliver a poor simulacrum of financial news, in a way that adds little to what is already available, and will ensure that it ranks way up in the results when you ask for financial news.  This is a search engine as publishing platform strategy and very different from the original “blind justice” promise of Google. John Battelle was the first to raise this issue. Is this kosher?

I would argue that it is not.  And more importantly, I’d say that it is another example of how the Google Guys have lost their way. (Getting deep into the Hollyweird Scene is another sure sign that they’ve taken their eyes off the ball.) This is only the latest in a string of marginal products.  Goggle’s RSS Reader, GMail program, Froogle shopping site, Google News aggregator, and Google Video delivery site are all second rate, me-too products with little to recommend them.  Its Picasa photo service, Blogger blogging tools, and Google Talk instant messenger environment are all markedly inferior to competitive products.  OK.  Google Earth is a pretty cool application, Book Search has possibilities, and Google Scholar actually moves the ball forward in the search world.

Not much of a batting average.  The Google Guys figured out a pretty neat way to rank the web (by referenced links), and built the tools to not only deliver search results but also created an interactive ad engine that works very well.  So far so good.  It was always a little galling that the company turned the traditional publishing model on its ear by paying nothing for the content (displayed in its search results) that it used to get advertisers to pony up money, but that just showed how smart they were.

There’s still plenty of headroom in this sector—advertising in its entirety is a $500 billion game and the Internet is getting by on well less than 10% of that spending so far. Investing lots of effort on improving search and advertising could still pay off big. In the tried and tested world of capitalism and commerce, Google should spend lots of its rising revenues extending its lead, all the while making customers more and more delighted with its products, and in the process cementing its market position—an  excellent example is Toyota, where cars are still the heart of its business fifty years after it was founded. 

But now comes the megalomania.  Like Napoleon, who should have focused on shoring  up his base in France, the Googlers think they can conquer every corner of the globe.  New but dull, derivative products appear from all sides.  These are good, but not great, greenlighted perhaps to satisfy the arrogance and egos of lots of suddenly rich, therefore smarter than the rest of us, people; perhaps because Eric Schmidt spent too much time at Sun Microsystems, another company afflicted with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and lots of very smart people that has never been able to figure out what business it is in.  In the process search itself languishes, and the company has done little to address either vertical searching (in specific fields like Kosmix), or social networking in search (tagging like Del.icio.us or communities like MySpace and Fickr), or personal search options (finding personalized results then delivering them in innovative ways like Blinkx.) 

Instead we get Google Finance, and in the wings, Google Calendar—yet another me too product. Supposedly Napoleon didn’t care about talent in his generals, only if they were “lucky.” A few more like this, and Google’s luck could run out.

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