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Google: Not Doomed

Posted October 13th, 2011 by Andrew Goodman

What was Steve Yegge thinking?

I’m sure that was what Steve Yegge himself was thinking after he inadvertently posted his already-famous internal rant that ranged from his former employer, Amazon’s, massive shortcomings, to the current failure of his current employer, Google, to stop being great at product and to start getting platform.  Yegge is so frustrated by that shortcoming that by the end of his post he manages to overturn his nearly infinite contempt for Amazon (and Jeff Bezos in particular), based solely on Bezos’ (albeit tortuous and autocratic) move to bolt “platformness” onto a company that previously wasn’t one. This U-turn in the narrative only deepened the contrast between Google (product-centric and thus only apparently successful but potentially doomed) and companies that get “the platform thing”.


The “platform thing” is what Facebook’s got that Google+ ain’t got. So along with everything else, the rant came across as a severe case of Facebook envy.

I have to admit that at first, I didn’t get it. Platform? Web services? API’s? Developer ecosystem? I have a passing familiarity with how important those trends have been to the success of some social networks, some browsers, and some mobile app environments. These trends are of wide importance. But still, I have to admit that Yegge’s world view is highly technical and deeply accomplished in areas I can’t even begin to scratch the surface in.

A lot of businesses — let’s face it — are not platforms. Don’t get platform. The local used car dealer? Doesn’t get it. Even though he’s “Canada’s Most Huggable Car Dealer.” Does not get platform at all.

The National Hockey League? For now, they suck at platform. Maybe after they’ve digested the move of a team from Atlanta to Winnipeg, and figured out whether to allow players to willfully inflict brain damage on one another, they can move on to consider whether to stop playing around with product and features to truly allow platform thinking to come to the fore. But for now I think they’ve got it on the back burner.

Granted, though, Google’s a little smarter than some other people. But still, not the smartest of all? That hurts.

Yegge got no argument from his legion of fans on Google+. Yeah! You suck at platform! When are you going to get it?

So in what sense does Google suck at this?

Let’s be clear. They have a few API’s. They operate in some ecosystems. But the main complaint appears to be that Google+ doesn’t have a plan to be a platform in the same way that Facebook is (at least yet). And that a massive cost will come to bolt that on later, if they decide to.

That’s fair enough. But Facebook is a pretty specific enemy. And the problem comes when you assume that Facebook is doing so very well and that Google is doomed because Google doesn’t “get” what “Facebook gets” about a “social platform”.

And then Google’s Q3 results came out.

Without a dime of revenue from Google+, or a dime of revenue from the huge spike in advertiser-to-audience fit that will come about as a result of Google+ having 100 million reasonably active users of the Google+ platform (er, product, for now), Google is knocking it out of the park.

It’s not doing all that well in some areas. But it knows who it is. And that’s important for a company that means to be great.

Facebook is Facebook, and Google is Google.

As I’ve stated before:

  • Google is the ultimate Hedgehog company that has such a big market size, everything it does (even apparent diversification) pours so efficiently back into the same funnel – its advertising model — that no matter what it appears to be “sucking at” or “not getting,” is in fact quietly succeeding. The flywheel turns, more advertisers join the advertising platform, and begin to expand their use of it. Although not directly talking, their fit with potential customers grows with every iteration, in keeping with the principle of markets being (at least reasonably close to) conversations.
  • Google+ is going to provide a gateway to audience targeting for advertisers to use the Google advertising platform to target users (ultimately, through not only Google publisher relationships, but through the ad exchange ecosystem, aka platforms) far beyond Google properties. The current state of the Google Display Network, even after the Doubleclick acquisition, is modest by Google standards. Mass adoption of Google+, especially given the current TOS that users agree to, will be a major catalyst in reigniting growth in non-search, non-Google-properties advertising for Google, to move it into 50% annual growth territory from 2012-2015.
  • As such, the urgency of getting the product out there probably led to the haste and lack of foresight in some areas. And as high as the cost of “bolting platform on” may be down the road, Google is easily able to afford it.

So these are some ways that Yegge’s rant is “wrong,” taking a wider view of what Google wants to accomplish as a well-run business.

How he’s right appears to be: Google+ would be doomed to feel like a kind of dead, dull place if all they did was beaver away on “features,” as Bradley Horowitz just offered. Compared with Facebook, where enthusiasts can hook up in endless diversionary ways with gaming and social environments owing to its fundamental acceptance of the platform model that allows third-party partners to flourish and proliferate in a manner that no “product team” could ever manage to do, Google+ right now is sort of like how Disney World would feel to the kids if you got there and there were no roller coasters, shows, or train rides…just crowds.

Yegge’s powerful point is well taken. “Product” cannot beat “platform” in that sense, and in many other senses in today’s connected business and social environments. While Google is no stranger to platforms and API’s, in the culture, one senses a certain reluctance.

Google began life as a company that prided itself on “sending users away to their destination site most efficiently,” not on “being sticky”. So it isn’t surprising that (not counting the YouTube acquisition), the notion that you would build and care for an entire… fun… social… environment… in part by embracing…outside developers… is a touch alien to most at the company.

Someday, though, the brilliance and openness that Facebook appears to have may prove to be more insular than Google’s mindset. Facebook is eager to play nice with its ecosystem so that they can make a nicer walled-sandbox for their users to play in. Period. Google knows no such bounds and aims to improve everything in the universe, and if not that, then certainly to be central to users’ lives anywhere they may be reading content, using a device, or doing pretty much anything.

Will the “good enough at platform and really great at business focus” strength of Google ultimately be more than good enough? Will Google eventually bolt on “that stuff” at some cost? Or will it persist in “not getting platform” and find itself doomed someday?

My vote is for not doomed, because boring things like products, assets, network effects, scale, efficiency, and focus may be far more than enough to ward off being as social and ecosystem-y as others who are the best in the world at that.

Whatever that is.

One Response to “Google: Not Doomed”

  1. Hmm, wasn’t AOL a “platform”? How’d that turn out? :)


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