Who’s Afraid of Google? The Economist Missed It

As a former Googler, I saw the cover of the Economist with the big article about “Who’s Afraid of Google?” and I have to say that it wasn’t at all what I had expected. As someone who did work at Google for about 18 months and really enjoyed it, I was expecting a piece more about whether you should be afraid of Google if you’re doing something on the web these days.

In the 18 months I was at Google, the company hired about 10,000 really smart people across the company. I feel I can make the following comments without disclosing anything proprietary. I took a look at all of the Google products on the main homepage (including the “More” tab) and the Labs Graduates and took some quick notes. Two things to ponder:

If you are building a product in the Local/Geo, Core Search, News, or Video Sharing spaces, you should be concerned. These products keep getting better and it’s clear that there is a focus on improving them. The Local/Geo team has StreetView, enhancements to Google Earth, improvements to the mobile client, etc. Core Search is continuing to gain market share versus competitors. YouTube continues to be the leading video sharing site on the web and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Google News is also a great product. If you’re in vertical or core web search, local/geo, news aggregation, or video sharing, it’s probably good to be at least a little concerned.

Outside of those four properties, what current Google properties inspire fear?

  • Blogger – WordPress and MT/Typepad have shown an ability to compete in this space. Blogger certainly hasn’t put either of these products out of business.
  • Google Finance – Yahoo continues to be the dominant finance destination on the web, but GFinance continues to add new features to achieve parity.
  • Documents & Spreadsheets – Both are good products, but face real competition from Zoho and others. Oh, and the whole list of folks who call it a potentially “career-limiting” move to implement them enterprise-wide aren’t helping make the case today.
  • Calendar – The best web calendaring application in my opinion, but it’s hard to get good market share on who’s really winning the web calendar wars.
  • Picasa + Picasaweb – Photo sharing and hosting is obviously competitive. Aside from Flickr, Photobucket, Ofoto, Snapfish, and Shutterfly, there are a ton of other players in this space.
  • Google Reader – Easily the top (or maybe #2) RSS reader on the web by market share and pundit praise. Feed reading is still not a mainstream activity, but this is a winning product.
  • Gmail – Tends to inspire a binary response from people. Power email users love it, others find it confusing. I haven’t seen any market share reports that place Gmail any higher than 3rd within the US behind Hotmail and Yahoo.
  • iGoogle – Still has to contend with MyYahoo (which is still the mainstream standard) and competitors like NetVibes.
  • Google SMS – Strong service. It competes with 4INFO, Yahoo, etc.
  • Google Checkout – Locked in a long-term battle to change the way people spend money on the web. It’s too early to declare victory or defeat.

I purposefully excluded relatively new products that were successful prior to acquisition — things like YouTube, Feedburner, and others had already established themselves as market leaders.

There are a lot of products on the list above which have not established themselves as market share leaders – we’ll set aside the question of whether these products generate revenue as I’m more focused on the competitive position these products occupy. Perhaps several of the categories above will prove not to be viable categories and being the leader/winner hence has no value. I find it hard to believe that will happen across the board.

With a lot (and I mean a lot) of really smart product managers and engineers, should we expect more in terms of new product introductions from Google? What do you think? Did I miss a Google product that you feel bucks this trend? Or, is simply focusing on the core four areas listed in the first point the way to go?
To be fair, I could launch a very similar criticism of Yahoo. I don’t and haven’t worked there, so I don’t have much perspective on what’s going on there.

  • jfass

    I think it’s interesting to call all of these things “products”. While I’m a big fan of many of the things listed above (maps, reader, calendar, igoogle) their ability to generate any direct revenue is unknown. In my opinion Google is a one “product” company–Search. And, YES in this category they rock!

    Just for the heck of it, let’s pretend Google search is dead (there are many articles about this out there). Now what does the company have?

  • jfass

    I think it’s interesting to call all of these things “products”. While I’m a big fan of many of the things listed above (maps, reader, calendar, igoogle) their ability to generate any direct revenue is unknown. In my opinion Google is a one “product” company–Search. And, YES in this category they rock! Just for the heck of it, let’s pretend Google search is dead (there are many articles about this out there). Now what does the company have?

  • While I would have to agree with jfass’ assertion that these services don’t make any money, I disagree with jfass that search is not a “Product” in that nobody pays for it. It’s a free service upon which Google has built an advertising network. That’s it’s only “Product” because it’s the only thing people pay for. An analogy: “No cover before 10” isn’t a ‘Product’, $6 vodka is a ‘Product’.

    None of this is the issue, however, for Google. The issue is weather or not it can maintain its financial strength into the future. This is a trick that pretty much only Microsoft has accomplished (although Adobe has managed its product life cycles rather well). Google has a lot of pets and one cash cow. It’s not clear what else is to be done from here to continue to make big gains in revenues.

    I guess maybe they’ll start making phones or airplanes or something.

  • Doug

    While I would have to agree with jfass’ assertion that these services don’t make any money, I disagree with jfass that search is not a “Product” in that nobody pays for it. It’s a free service upon which Google has built an advertising network. That’s it’s only “Product” because it’s the only thing people pay for. An analogy: “No cover before 10” isn’t a ‘Product’, $6 vodka is a ‘Product’. None of this is the issue, however, for Google. The issue is weather or not it can maintain its financial strength into the future. This is a trick that pretty much only Microsoft has accomplished (although Adobe has managed its product life cycles rather well). Google has a lot of pets and one cash cow. It’s not clear what else is to be done from here to continue to make big gains in revenues. I guess maybe they’ll start making phones or airplanes or something.