Google: It’s Not About Search

These days, Google seems to be interested in just about everything—portals, search, VoIP, instant messaging, email, photos, blogging, maps, topography, Wi-Fi and NASA, just for starters. Google’s eclectic interests must aggravate Microsoft’s competitive analysis folks. Every week, someone asks me what any part of all this stuff has to do with search. After all, Google is a search company.

I disagree. Google no longer is just a search company, if it ever really was. Search is really a means to an end, and that end is the access to information. Looked at from this perspective, access to information, all of Google’s recent announcements make sense. And combined they foreshadow where the company is going and why Microsoft really should worry about Google. 

If the smart folks at Google are as smart as I think they are (I swear they’ve got a black hole there sucking up all the PhD’s), then they’ve learned important lessons from IBM and Microsoft about information. During the days of mainframes’ dominance, when IBM wore the king’s crown, the company controlled information access. Vast amounts of information accessed by IBM mainframes via IBM operating systems created a powerful customer lock-in to business, government and educational institution information.

The PC’s evolution created new information repositories and a period of long transition away from mainframes. Microsoft captured IBM’s crown, initially through Windows but more through Office proprietary file formats. Particularly with the productivity suite, once Microsoft reached a critical mass of users—all creating and saving information in Office file formats—businesses felt compelled to use the software to ensure compatibility, the assurance they could share information. And, over time, more and more businesses stored their valuable information in proprietary Office file formats. Microsoft controls tremendous information access, because of the format lock-in, and sells lots of software because of it..

But—and it’s a big but–the sudden development of the World Wide Web created new avenues of information access, and repositories not controlled by or limited to Microsoft proprietary file formats. I’m convinced that the Web greatly limited Microsoft’s potential informational dominance. The company responded by beating Netscape in the browser wars and by making its eventually dominant browser part of Windows. But the threat remained and re-manifested as search through Google.

Problem for Microsoft: Google’s ambitions would appear to be much larger than search. Looks to me like the company wants to catalog and access all information, regardless of who creates it or where it is stored. Google provides some tools for creating information (such as Blogger, Gmail, Google Talk, and Picasa) and storing information (such as Blogger and Gmail). On the Web, Google provides access to larger information stores by way of search. But the company also has shown interest in unlocking new informational stores (such as maps) or providing access to other, not-so-easily accessed repositories (such as libraries or, in the future, NASA). Google’s proposed Wi-Fi plan with San Francisco shows Google is willing to provide the pipes for accessing information, too.

Search is the most obvious way for Google to monetize informational access. But I believe the company’s ambitions are bigger. Google, like Microsoft and Yahoo!, knows that the big ad dollars are spent offline, with TV being a huge bucket of spending. Google wants to pull those ad dollars online. One approach is to make online more appealing, to increase the attractiveness of information, services, and communications, so that more people spend more time online. Another approach is opening the floodgates of access—anytime, anywhere, any device. Looks to me like Google wants to simultaneously create more online informational demand for pulling more ad dollars online and build infrastructure for capturing more ad dollars as they move online.

I believe that Google wants to provide the means of getting to the information and create its own kind of lock-in over time, just as IBM and Microsoft did in their day. Right now, Google’s hold is tenuous. There is little “sticky” about search. Customers can change search engines by typing in a new Web address. But as Google releases more technologies for creating, storing, and accessing information, the company’s products and services grow stickier. How sticky they will eventually become will depend on a number of factors, including Google’s execution and the response of companies like Microsoft.

Additionally, I also believe Google is engaging in some misdirection, clearly aimed at Microsoft. I believe the Google folks are smart enough to recognize that when Microsoft fixates on a competitor the corporate personality becomes obsession. There is no question that Microsoft is obsessed with Google and its products. So, Google can lead Microsoft all over the place, with the software giant chasing the search/information company like a dog being led after a bone. Google can’t be everywhere, even if information might seem to be everywhere. But the company can appear to be interested in everything and cause Microsoft to waste resources, be distracted chasing Google, while the rival executes brilliantly where the Redmond folks aren’t looking.

My advice to Microsoft: Stop following Google. When Microsoft obsesses, it makes reactionary decisions and releases reactionary products that mimic its competitor. That’s not how Microsoft can succeed here.

Photo Credit: Danny Sullivan