Google is an excellent search engine. Or it used to be. I really can't say for sure if it is still a great search engine, because it has been so long since I have used any of the alternatives, I don't know how it measures up. I do know that as the years go by, Google's results seem less reliable. I find myself going more and more past not just the first page, but the second, third, forth, tenth page of results before finding what I need. My search habits have not changed since I first started using Google, which was a long time ago.
For some time now, Google has been expanding their offerings - Image Search, News Search, Toolbar, Froogle, GMail, Maps, Talk, (to name a few) and now, Base. Many of these are closely related to their primary goal of search. I am sure that it did not take a huge code rewrite to do the news, image, or video search (indeed, video search was probably three or four lines of code different from image search, not including the frame grab of the first frame for the thumbnail).
Up until Google started their paid advertising program, they had no way to monetize their business model. They were capturing an ever growing share of the search market, but unlike everyone else, they did not have a portal, banner ads, or any of the usual methods of generating income. This was a major reason that people were switching to Google, because they had an super-simple, uncluttered interface.
As Google branches out, everything they do seems to be a driver for the AdWords and AdSense programs. GMail is a great example. From what I can tell, GMail has a decent-to-excellent user interface, and offers a lot of storage space. That is all it offers above and beyond Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, or other web-based, free email sites. To be honest, neither one of those features are very compelling to me. I already have an email client that I am extremely satisfied, and it can store much more than 2 GB of email (and I have much more than 2 GB of stored email, I may add). Some people are adding all sorts of "functionality" to GMail, to allow it to act as more than just email. To that, I simply ask "why?" Why would I want to clutter my email with funkily formatted emails, just for the sake of file storage or calendaring pr whatever? Are there no sites out there better suited for that purpose? Furthermore, from waht I have seen, GMail is slow at best, and unreliable at worst. I have had to re-send too many emails to GMail users who never received a message to put my trust in that system.
There is also a real dark side to GMail, and Google Base, and I'm sure Google Talk, and any of their other non-search products: privacy. Google monetizes these offerings by looking at your data (email, data entries in Base, etc.) and custom-crafting advertisements that match the "topic" of my data. When this happens to my PC, that means that I have a spyware infection. In other words, people jump for joy at using a web-based product which, by it's very design, is spyware. I'm not afraid or ashamed to say it, either. Google's non-search products are spyware, plain and simple. I do not understand why customers are willing to go to any length needed (paying Geek Squad a fortune, re-installing Windows, wiping their drives, spending big bucks on protection/removal software, etc.) to have spyware removed, and then they turn around and are willing, overjoyed on occassion, to use spyware infected versions of the applications that they use most.
What do people think is going to happen if the Google/Sun alliance ever manages to produce a GoogleOffice? Or if the legendary Google Browser ever comes out? Or even the rumored GoogleOS? At one point, Google was producing neat pieces of code simply because they could. Now, Google does not produce a line of code without thought as to how it will guide users into clicking on a banner or piece of text that will generate revenue. Do you really want Google's computers keeping detailed records as to what is in your documents? Do you want Google to read your "Dear John" letter to your wife or husband, and offer you banners to divorce lawyers or dating websites? Or the email from your doctor about "that problem we discussed" and then offering you ads for products to reduce the itching? I know that I don't want that.
I understand Google's need for revenue. Although they are making a healthy profit already, they are now a publicly traded company. The wealth of the people running the show is no longer directly tied to the revenue stream, but is now in the form or options and existing stock holdings. The stock price is now more important than the comapny's quality, and technology stock prices are heavily dependent upon the company's growth. So for the Google Guys to get any richer, or at least maintain their current wealth, they need to aggressively persue market share and revenue growth. Tech companies get hammered by Wall Street not for missing profit expectations, but by missing growth expectations. This is exactly what happened to so many of the other has-beens and never-was companies that litter the dot-com graveyard. They relentlessly persued market share in exchange and lost sight of why the customers were originally going to their sites for. Google is getting closer and closer to becoming a portal, meanwhile their core search offering has not improved (I beleive it has deteriorated) in the slightest in quite a while. The last time I remember a scenario like that, it was AltaVista, Lycos, and Yahoo! all competing to be the best portal, while their search engines slowly declined or stagnated, until a young startup company with a fresh outlook on search and a commitment to focus purely on search came along. That company was Google.
Yes, Google is very smart about how they draw their revenue from AdWords/AdSense. They no longer need someone to click on an ad in the Google search engine to get money; they have zillions of affiliated websites, plus their applications also generate the clicks. But a lot of website owners who use Google are turning off that end of their Google advertising programs. Many of my customers have. We sat down and ran some log reports. Customers coming in from the Google search engine were ten times more likely to produce a conversion for us. And we defined "conversion" extremely liberally: anyone contacting us, sending an email, making a phone call, or purchasing a product. Many of the clicks we got from the non-search placement was from customers in other countries, despite us telling Google to restrict where the ads were displayed. We sort of suspected some type of click fraud, but could never be sure of it. My customers asked me to turn off the non-search placement, and their bills are down significantly, allowing them to increase their bid amounts for the search placement, and get more, higher quality clicks. When you're selling a product with a $1,000 profit margin, you don't mind spending an extra fifty cents per click, when those clicks result in a sale 2% of the time, but you sure mind paying $1 per click (especially since you cannot bid AdWords and AdSense separately) when your aggregate sales is a mere 0.1% or so of those clicks. My customers see their Google bills as "extortion". Google is so filled with junk and other websites, the chances of getting to the top of their organic rankings is pretty slim. And my customers view being at the top of Google as a "must have" for success. Sure, it helps a lot, considering Google's market share, but Yahoo!/Overture covers the other half of the web too, at a better price. As my customers (and other advertisers) wake up to this fact, they will put more of their advertising dollars to work elsewhere. And if Google starts to lose market share, switching away from Google becomes even more compelling.
With many of Google's AdWords/AdSense customers seething or even in open revolt, Google has been frantically revamping and "improving" their services to pacify customers. Their new analytics system is obviously a sop to the folks (such as my customers) who got tired of having to spend hours each month poring over their own weblogs trying to justify the amount they spent on Google advertising each month. Some of my customers have already given up, and are exclusively using Yahoo!/Overture, which is much less expensive, much more friendly, and covers about the same portion of web search as Google does. If Google's search customers get increasingly grumpy about spending that kind of cash on the AdSense program, and Google lets the search engine lose out to a smaller, more nimble competitor (or even an existing big guy like Yahoo! or Microsoft), it becomes irrelevant how many people are staring at Google applications all day long, because they will now just be a drain on Google's resources.
I say, let Google get their search engine to where it used to be first. Make it generate relevant results more of the time. Then they should get all of those products still in beta either working and fully functional, or offline. Get AdWords/AdSense working for advertisers, instead of against advertisers. Then, at that point, when their house is in order, can they start thinking of new revenue streams. This is a go/no-go moment for Google, and I think the correct choice is no-go.
Should Google do this? Or do you think Google Applications are the right path for them? Leave a comment and tell me what you think!
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Justin James is an OutSystems MVP, architect, and developer with expertise in SaaS applications and enterprise applications.