2008 – the year Google jumped the shark?

Posted December 24, 2008 in strategy  |  No Comments so far

As the year draws to an end and I retreat home to wrap presents and eat mince pies, I find myself wondering if 2008 will go down as the year in which Google’s fall from grace began.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s no way I’m forecasting doom for Google. It’s not Woolworths. But a large part of Google’s advantage in its decade of existence has stemmed from the unparalleled reputation it enjoys. Indeed, earlier this year it was named as the world’s most powerful brand for the second year running.

Why is its brand so strong? Google has always been a good example of a business that diversified without corrupting its core offering (in Google’s case, search). Yahoo! is a counter-example. As it acquired companies like eGroups and GeoCities, expanding its set of available services, it lost its central focus and gradually became bloated and flawed.

The increasing clutter of its homepage was a visual manifestation of this strategic drift. Google’s remained an appropriate distillation of its focus on search – even as it added mail, news, calendar, maps and other successful services.

Yahoo! and Google homepages, 1996 to 2005
Yahoo! and Google’s homepages from 1996 to 2005

But I think that this year might mark a turning point and that future historians might go as far as saying that Google jumped the shark in 2008, even though it saw off the laughable challenge from Cuil. Let’s look at some of the things that Google’s launched this year:

  • Google SearchWiki – I’m listing this first because out of all Google’s product launches this has been the first to really impact its core offering, search. The idea is that users of the feature can manipulate and personalise their search results. Someone suggested to me that it heralded the end of natural search optimisation. My prediction? The feature will be gone within 12 months.
  • Google Knol – Google’s “Wikipedia killer”. I don’t like basing conclusions on anecdotal evidence but, well… have you ever used it? The press hype around the Knol launch was driven more by negative attitudes to Wikipedia than positive ones towards this competitor. I don’t think Knol will be going away any time soon but I think it’s been something of a damp squib. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who uses it regularly.
  • Google Chrome – Google’s “Firefox killer”. Like around 3% of the internet I installed and started using Chrome when it came out. However, I’m not among the 0.83% of the internet who are still using it. The only good thing about it is its start-up time. Apart from that I think Google should spend more time going after the likes of Apple and Microsoft rather than Wikipedia and Mozilla.
  • Google Lively – Lively was full of fail. Launched in July as a competitor to Second Life, people who know about such things (e.g. not me) were immediately critical of Google Lively. Generous souls waited for subsequent releases to deliver improvements, but instead the service was officially killed in November 2008.

Oh yeah – there’s Jaiku as well, but I’m tired of writing bullet lists. It’s Christmas after all!

Google has a far from perfect track record when it comes to product launches and its policy has always been to develop experimental projects and see how they fare in the market. However I think 2008 has been different for two core reasons – one, that it has started to alter its core search offering (in the form of Search Wiki) and two, that many of these other launches do actually seem to be strategic as opposed to whimsical.

If it’s true that these releases have indeed been strategic, then the underlying strategy – whatever it is – is failing. Google is in danger of its brand being tarnished by failure. 2008 has been the year in which it’s become possible to at least envision a future Google that’s not a million miles from AOL or Yahoo!.

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