free html hit counter Is Google A Leader? - John Battelle's Search Blog

Is Google A Leader?

By - May 11, 2005

The-Road-Ahead “What’s Google up to?” is the favorite question of most magazine editors I know. It’s also the backstory for a recent spate of querulous posts across the blogosphere.

Fred ponders the role of Google in our world, and Jeff responds. From Fred’s post:

I think Google has become so mainstream and so ubiquitous in our everday Internet lives that its lost its mojo in some ways. That doesn’t mean it won’t continue to be hugely relevant, hugely profitable, and hugely important. But it does mean that there’s a vacuum that can get filled by others who are small, innovative, new, and exciting.

With respect to Google’s position in the dealmaking universe, Fred has this to say (I’d love to know what informed this rant, but I imagine it’s first hand experience):

And finally, Google is acting like AOL all of a sudden. You can’t do a deal with them without paying respect to their market position. That’s fine and is always the case with a market leader, but it will come back to bite them because the deals they won’t do will get done with others. And some of those deals are going to be important ones that will create new participants in the market who will grow and become more powerful over time.

From Jeff’s post (echoed by Dan Gillmor):

I love Google and what it has done organizing the world’s information and valuing links and taking the cooties off of citizens’ media and changing the culture. But is it time to start fearing Google (with its caching and its opaque ad policy and its opaque news policy) or mock Google (as Fred does, for reverting to banner ads)? Just asking.



It’s hard to be the de factor leader in the tech/media space, and Google is clearly not entirely prepped for the role, at least not yet. But given its success and its stock price, it has no choice. We’re expecting the company to act how we want it to act. The problem, of course, is that we all have different expectations, and we all think we’re right about what the company should do next.

The only thing a company can do in such a spot, it seems to me, is lead. Lead on issues of policy, transparency, open APIs, IP/DRM, and the like. How to do that? Have a clear and consistent voice and vision about where you think the web is going, and what kind of web you want to see built. That requires a confidence and certainty, characteristics which I sense exist in spades at the company, but have not really come out in a full throated way. There seems to be a lot of reacting going on at this moment – reactions to critics, to competitors, to PR flare ups.

It’s scary to lead, to declare where you are going and then head there. It’s even scarier to admit that as a leader you’ve made a mistake. But that’s what we expect of our leaders – that they head somewhere, so we can either follow, or plot our next move to outsmart them and take their place. For now, it seems Google is a reluctant leader – it does not want to declare where it’s going, or what it’s plans are when it gets there. That’s causing consternation and second guessing like Fred and Jeff and Dan’s posts.

Remember when Bill Gates wrote that silly book (1996)? I thought it was ridiculous – it felt obvious and patronizing to me as a self appointed New Media Guy, but it was a statement that he was willing to be a leader. He was willing to hang it out there, to outline a vision of where he saw his industry going. Most of the world backed him on that book, regardless of the sniping from editors at hip tech magazines.

Would the guys at Google ever do such a thing? Should they?

I sense that many of us wish they would. We long for a clear vision on the idea of the Web OS, for example, or the role of search in media distribution and commerce. Is Google getting into VOIP? Word processing? The cable business? Gaming? Movies? We invent endless fantasies about where Google might end up, then pounce on any possible indications that Google is working on making those fantasies real. It’s been fun for a while, but I sense we’re all tiring of the guessing game. And I bet nowhere is that game more tiresome than inside the Googleplex itself. What do you think?


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4 thoughts on “Is Google A Leader?

  1. Dean Rowan says:

    But given its success and its stock price, it has no choice. We’re expecting the company to act how we want it to act. The problem, of course, is that we all have different expectations, and we all think we’re right about what the company should do next.

    I’m not sure this is a problem. If leadership is measured merely by “success” (i.e, stock price), then perhaps we have a problem. Instead, perhaps leadership is about addressing or accommodating different expectations, rather than simply announcing, “This is how it is!” Of course, part of Google’s “success” as a search tool has been its ability to adjust our expectations.

    The only thing a company can do in such a spot, it seems to me, is lead. Lead on issues of policy, transparency, open APIs, IP/DRM, and the like. How to do that? Have a clear and consistent voice and vision about where you think the web is going, and what kind of web you want to see built. That requires a confidence and certainty, characteristics which I sense exist in spades at the company, but have not really come out in a full throated way.

    It’s more subtle than this, I think. One can’t simply “lead.” And confidence and certainty are not always or necessarily a priori characteristics; they often emerge after the fact to explain a perceived success. A confident, certain, clear, and consistent voice and vision is often consonant with an off-putting haughtiness, such as the kind that provokes Fred’s “rant.” (And so denominating his comments sorta begs the question, doesn’t it?) More affirmatively, there are ways to lead that entail confronting uncertainty, avoiding a monotonous message, and playing with risk.

  2. IDentity says:

    When the Ancient Greeks built the famous monuments, a row broke out between the Principal Architect and the City Accountant. The accountant argued that they wanted a discount as they were not willing tp pay for the statues to be carved on the back, as no-one can see backs only the fronts.

    The Architect responded, the Gods can see, and that

  3. Ari says:

    Why does everyone seem to think that Google has some sort of “Grand Vision”? Is it possible they aren’t quite as cohesive as we think, and the majority of the projects we see coming from them are simply the result of sticking a thousand geeks in a building and giving them computers and free food?

    That said, I do think they are becoming a much less fun company to watch (work for?) with the DoubleClick-ization process that’s been going on. In short, it looks like any big business schemes they have going on are boring ad-related stuff, and I wonder how much longer the fun side-projects that make us love them will keep coming with their shift in focus away from technology.

  4. Seun Osewa says:

    “… the majority of the projects we see coming from them are simply the result of sticking a thousand geeks in a building and giving them computers and free food?”

    Exactly. Google as I see it is not a ‘tight ship’ with clear goals, clear directions. It is directed by two young people who started it out of grad school

    Young people will *always* make mistakes, and they may not always know what they are doing. Fortunately, until recently, they were in an industry that was not well understood by their competitors.

    Now that the industry is “awake”, they cannot afford to make as many mistakes as before … But wait a minute, Sergey and Brin have already sold stock worth hundreds of millions of dollars! Thanks to over-eager investors, Google doesn’t have to survive the upcoming search war for the founders to remain rich!