It’s been just over a year since Larry Page took over as CEO of Google. The obvious landmark since his new position is Google +, and though the jury still seems to be out about the new(ish) social platform, the numbers show that it has the capability to stand against the big G’s arch nemesis, Facebook. (Did anyone else just visualise Zuckerburg slowly turning around in a leather swivel chair, stroking a big F sign? Just me? Ok.)
Google is the king of search, it leads the way in online advertising, it has made YouTube the most important multimedia platform on the internet, and then along comes G+, a social network that Page is determined to see come to fruition for the company. You can’t deny the fact that Page has moved Google in a new direction since April 2011, bringing focus and consolidation to a company in danger of succumbing to its own bureaucracy, but behind the pluses, is there a minus sign?
The shift from the ‘holy trinity’ of Eric Schmidt and founding partners Larry Page and Sergey Brin to just one man, Page, marked a tangible change in ethos that had possibly happened a long time ago. In Google’s teenage years, it was a company for the people, an innovation factory, a sort of coded up Willy Wonka if you will. Now, it has the kind of power that makes governments nervous. But it can be argued that a single front man is what the company needed to avoid a gradual implosion, and Page seems to be paving the way with confidence and determination, as a figurehead who knows what he wants, and is prepared to shake things up to get it.
In his years at Google, Page has already shown a knack for canny development – he was behind the Android acquisition in 2004, and seemingly as a response to litigation from Apple and other competitors, led Google to purchase Motorola Mobility. What he plans on doing with the mobile company and its 200,000 employees is yet to be revealed, but you can bet the decision was not made on a whim. The co-founder has a particular vision, and if this year has shown anything, it is that he isn’t prepared to wait for things to just happen.
Upon his takeover, Page believed Google was its own enemy, in danger of stagnating, or becoming complacent – it’s lonely up there at the top, after all. There was (is) also the very real threat of Facebook’s social dominance. Just this week Sergey Brin was quoted criticising Zuckerburg’s baby by comparing it to government censorship. It’s fairly transparent, however, that the real issue lies with the amount of Facebook data still not made available to Google spiders – a substantial stumbling block for ultimate Google supremacy: “There’s a lot to be lost,” Brin complains, “For example, all the information in apps – that data is not crawlable by web crawlers. You can’t search it.”
Google might have a big chunk of the internet’s data, but Facebook has the people. Social media is the last bastion, and time and time again, the search giant has been turned away at the door. So it’s no surprise that focus for this year has been firmly on Google +. Page moved his office to the social department, and employees were informed their bonuses depended on the success of the platform – Larry didn’t just want a competitor to Facebook, he wanted to implement social into the very DNA of Google.
So far, G+ has a 500 million-strong membership, and is the most successful social product for the company to date. It also feels as if it’s still very much in the development stage – the first step of a social transformation that Page has planned. But it still remains a little indefinable: Is it different to Facebook? Kinda. Is it better? Well, it’s … kinda … different. Oh, oh, it has “circles”, that’s new, right?
Steven Levy at Wired.co.uk sums it up nicely:
“The concept is that when all the pieces of Google — Search, Gmail, Docs, Maps and so on — make use of what the company knows about you, it can serve you a lot better. This makes a lot of sense, but it’s a tricky thing to execute. People are accustomed using Google products individually. Suddenly being forced to take in the Google experience in one big chunk can be jarring — and scary.”
G+’s selling points were predominantly based around privacy, personalisation and flexibility, playing on the recent (and recurrent) distrust of Facebook’s covert privacy adjustments. And yet, whatever misgivings Facebook users have over how their data is collected and used, they’re not going anywhere fast. In contrast, Page had to weather the storm through the roll out of social search, and the changes to Google’s privacy policies in May last year, which were far wider criticised than, for example, the switch to Timeline. Perhaps the problem lies with the sheer omniscience of Google, and how it uses its data attribution – the ads on your Gmail sidebars echo your personal correspondence, your search results and maps know exactly where you are… All these things are making it easier for users, sure, but you have to admit it’s a little bit creepy at the same time.
Just last month James Whittaker, previous Google employee, blogged about why he left the company for Microsoft. His reasons were based around how the company has changed over the years, and a big part of that has been the quest for social domination. Whittaker explains:
Officially, Google declared that “sharing is broken on the web” and nothing but the full force of our collective minds around Google+ could fix it.
As it turned out, sharing was not broken. Sharing was working fine and dandy, Google just wasn’t part of it. People were sharing all around us and seemed quite happy. A user exodus from Facebook never materialized. I couldn’t even get my own teenage daughter to look at Google+ twice, “social isn’t a product,” she told me after I gave her a demo, “social is people and the people are on Facebook.”
What do you think? Is Whittaker right? Or will Page succeed in pushing Google into a new era and transform the company from search to social? If the last year is anything to go by, Google hasn’t lost its passion, but has it lost its soul?
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