Google’s Endless Summer


A recent tour of Google headquarters (Aug. 13), and a highly cordial meeting with staff responsible for their advertising programs, offered me palpable confirmation: This is a young company on top of the world but taking nothing for granted. The Googlers’ enthusiastic hosting of that evening’s Google Dance bash, enjoyed by hundreds of attendees of the Search Engine Strategies conference, ranked Google high on life’s intangibles, as well.

In a previous article I polled some industry watchers in attempt to figure out why this Google thing just kept on happening. Some pointed directly to the technology, others argued in favor of timing, still others claimed it was the clean home page and singular focus that made Google a hit.

Fast forward precisely one year. Mainstream publications like Fortune magazine (in a glossy reprint that Googlers were handing out at the conference) are now singing Google’s praises louder than ever. The head-scratching analysis (and over-analysis) hasn’t abated. Fortune made much of the server hardware advantage underlying Google’s success – a point that’s been made before, but one that continues to capture observers’ imagination perhaps to an excessive degree (but like the phony eBay Pez Dispenser tale, it’s been an important part of developing a lore). And we’re now seeing more media talk about search engine business strategy, even if Google’s mathematicians and engineers mainly just wanted to create a cool product that worked fast.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the media’s love affair with Google has been bemusing to watch; each writer seems to see in Google what they want to see. The major financial press wait impatiently for an IPO; Wired writes (less than a year ago) that Google is “geek-beloved” (hey, it’s not just for geeks anymore) and rails against Google’s supposed mishandling of its acquisition of the Usenet archive from Deja – a temporary controversy if there ever was one.

Sometimes one really can overthink things. Although usability studies have been at the foundation of many of Google’s more recent user-interface refinements (as they have been at companies like Yahoo! and Terry Lycos), as Marissa Mayer of Google pointed out in her talk at the SES conference, the initial clean look was simply the result of one of the Google co-founders’ conviction that “we’re not web designers and I don’t do HTML.”

As for technology, no question, Google has a great search engine. At the same time, they’re not the only ones who do. And the serious shortcomings in its offerings in the not-so-distant past – such as the inability to properly search phrases – might have been enough to sink a less-charmed ship. We’ve  already been over the terrain before: AltaVista’s Raging Search, a direct attempt to compete with Google’s clean look and feel, could have triumphed in a different set of circumstances. AV had just burned too many chances, and its attempts to reinvigorate its search focus didn’t make a dent in the marketplace.

The endless search for the causes of Google’s success may be an exercise in hyper-rationality. For all I know, it’s witchcraft.

The current business successes of Google are undeniable. It’s managing to make a buck while maintaining the integrity of its search index. Very early on into the ramp-up of its AdWords Select and Premium Sponsorship programs (to go alongside other revenue streams from enterprise search), Google is reportedly profitable and making better revenues than eBay was at a similar stage of development. July’s comScore Media Metrix report of US Internet usage puts Google at a shocking #4, behind only the three major portals AOL, MSN, and Yahoo, and ahead of Terra Lycos (and everybody else).

With profitability and ownership of a massive daily user base comes a measure of autonomy. The usual suspects in the financial media can’t smugly micromanage a profitable privately-held technology company that can delay going public as long as it wishes. Google is not betting the entire farm on selling its search technology or keyword-based advertising results to portal partners, since, in the worst-case scenario, Google can fall back on monetizing its own heavy traffic.

Working at Google (as with many ultra-youthful Internet startups, most of whose day seems to have come and gone) is surely a singular experience. Brightly colored exercise balls, lava lamps, and goofy cereal dispensers are just the beginning. As employee #149 (an oldtimer as the headcount approaches 500) shows us around a bit more, we get to see various wacky-but-factual meters, charts, and prototypes all chronicling some aspect of Google’s past or current performance. We hustle past the legal department (“not that interesting”) and the finance department (“not that interesting, either”). In the parlance of organizational sociology, the company’s dominant coalition is engineers, with a significant and fast-growing add-on, the advertising salespeople, business development personnel, and the customer support reps whose job it is to keep advertisers happy. Inevitably, the organizational culture will shift to better achieve revenue targets, but it seems improbable that the place will become top-heavy with management. So far, it’s working.

One of the founders’ offices shows further evidence of “street cred” lurking in the bowels of America’s #4 web property: a wastebasket filled with worn-down hockey sticks suitable for street hockey or perhaps roller hockey. One Googler wears an oversized white hockey jersey with a big Google logo on it. Hmm, just enough Canadiana there to whet my whistle, but without the lousy winters. I start mentally calculating the cost-benefit of relocating. I’d have to start cheering for the San Jose Sharks. More frequent visits, at least, I decide.

New recruits don’t take it for granted. One paused when it was remarked that his shot at being hired was probably 500 to 1 at best. He thought about that, and suddenly two months ago seemed like an eternity ago to him, even if the pay here for entry-level jobs can’t be that great. “This sure beats where I was when I applied for this job: unemployment… and starving.” Like any other job. Except this one’s at Google, Inc.

The much-vaunted integration of work and play in the working lives of employees at companies like Google seems to defy conventional management thinking. Surely more money and the development of world-beating technology mean more work, and less play? Isn’t this a market economy, where everything has its price – an economy in which there are *trade-offs* and disastrous consequences for those who think they can have it all? Won’t Google get eaten alive eventually by a more sober, rational, sane competitor who eats her cereal at home? Is one late-forties CEO really enough adult supervision to keep this bunch focused? Didn’t someone say that they don’t even *have* a CFO?

Not so long ago I was teaching a university course in public policy wherein the authors of a piece on unorthodox management and decision-making models used Apple as an example of a company whose innovations never would have happened unless play was incorporated into the founders’ daily work. People tend not to buy into these kinds of ideas when they hear them for the first time. Parents who have saved every time to send their kids to a good school don’t want their future management material learning that play is good. A few students nearly dropped my course that week, all because of that article. Much of the world is still eager to sign on with an established bureaucracy.

One thing’s certain – once a person gets used to thinking beyond and around tradeoffs, it’s tough to go back. Unorthodox ways of working shouldn’t be seen as *causes* of Google’s success any more than any other single causal factor, like red exercise balls, powerful server hardware, or, for that matter, youth. But they certainly seem to be a good fit for now.

If youth were the cause of Google’s success, what might that say about the future? As one industry veteran remarked, most everyone at Google seems to be in their twenties, whereas LookSmart’s core group are in their thirties and AltaVista’s perhaps even older than that. Does this mean Google will  become the victim of a “life cycle?” Will 2002 be fondly remembered as the high point, the day in the sun? When will Googlers start looking as tired as the rest of us feel?

Why try to write history while there is still so much future left? And just a little bit of summer left, we hope.

You may also like