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Google's Endless Summer

By Andrew Goodman, 8/28/2002

A recent tour of Google headquarters (Aug. 13), and a highly cordial meeting with
staff responsible for their advertising programs, offered me palpable confirmation:
This is a young company on top of the world but taking nothing for granted. The
Googlers’ enthusiastic hosting of that evening’s Google Dance bash,
enjoyed by hundreds of attendees of the Search Engine Strategies conference, ranked
Google high on life’s intangibles, as well.


In a previous article
I polled some industry watchers in attempt to figure out why this Google thing
just kept on happening. Some pointed directly to the technology, others argued
in favor of timing, still others claimed it was the clean home page and singular
focus that made Google a hit.



Fast forward precisely one year. Mainstream publications like Fortune magazine
(in a glossy reprint that Googlers were handing out at the conference) are now
singing Google’s praises louder than ever. The head-scratching analysis
(and over-analysis) hasn’t abated. Fortune made much of the server hardware
advantage underlying Google’s success – a point that’s been made
before, but one that continues to capture observers’ imagination perhaps
to an excessive degree (but like the phony eBay Pez Dispenser tale, it’s
been an important part of developing a lore). And we’re now seeing more
media talk about search engine business strategy, even if Google’s mathematicians
and engineers mainly just wanted to create a cool product that worked fast.



Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the media’s love affair with
Google has been bemusing to watch; each writer seems to see in Google what they
want to see. The major financial press wait impatiently for an IPO; Wired writes
(less than a year ago) that Google is “geek-beloved” (hey, it’s
not just for geeks anymore) and rails against Google’s supposed mishandling
of its acquisition of the Usenet archive from Deja – a temporary controversy
if there ever was one.



Sometimes one really can overthink things. Although usability studies have
been at the foundation of many of Google’s more recent user-interface refinements
(as they have been at companies like Yahoo! and Terry Lycos), as Marissa Mayer
of Google pointed out in her talk at the SES conference, the initial clean look
was simply the result of one of the Google co-founders’ conviction that
“we’re not web designers and I don’t do HTML.”



As for technology, no question, Google has a great search engine. At the same
time, they’re not the only ones who do. And the serious shortcomings in
its offerings in the not-so-distant past – such as the inability to properly
search phrases – might have been enough to sink a less-charmed ship. We’ve
already been over the terrain before: AltaVista’s Raging Search, a direct
attempt to compete with Google’s clean look and feel, could have triumphed
in a different set of circumstances. AV had just burned too many chances, and
its attempts to reinvigorate its search focus didn’t make a dent in the
marketplace.



The endless search for the causes of Google’s success may be an exercise
in hyper-rationality. For all I know, it’s witchcraft.



The current business successes of Google are undeniable. It’s managing
to make a buck while maintaining the integrity of its search index. Very early
on into the ramp-up of its AdWords Select and Premium Sponsorship programs (to
go alongside other revenue streams from enterprise search), Google is reportedly
profitable and making better revenues than eBay was at a similar stage of development.
July’s comScore Media Metrix report of US Internet usage puts Google at
a shocking #4, behind only the three major portals AOL, MSN, and Yahoo, and
ahead of Terra Lycos (and everybody else).



With profitability and ownership of a massive daily user base comes a measure
of autonomy. The usual suspects in the financial media can’t smugly micromanage
a profitable privately-held technology company that can delay going public as
long as it wishes. Google is not betting the entire farm on selling its search
technology or keyword-based advertising results to portal partners, since, in
the worst-case scenario, Google can fall back on monetizing its own heavy traffic.



Working at Google (as with many ultra-youthful Internet startups, most of whose
day seems to have come and gone) is surely a singular experience. Brightly colored
exercise balls, lava lamps, and goofy cereal dispensers are just the beginning.
As employee #149 (an oldtimer as the headcount approaches 500) shows us around
a bit more, we get to see various wacky-but-factual meters, charts, and prototypes
all chronicling some aspect of Google’s past or current performance. We
hustle past the legal department (“not that interesting”) and the
finance department (“not that interesting, either”). In the parlance
of organizational sociology, the company’s dominant coalition is engineers,
with a significant and fast-growing add-on, the advertising salespeople, business
development personnel, and the customer support reps whose job it is to keep
advertisers happy. Inevitably, the organizational culture will shift to better
achieve revenue targets, but it seems improbable that the place will become
top-heavy with management. So far, it’s working.



One of the founders’ offices shows further evidence of “street cred”
lurking in the bowels of America’s #4 web property: a wastebasket filled
with worn-down hockey sticks suitable for street hockey or perhaps roller hockey.
One Googler wears an oversized white hockey jersey with a big Google logo on
it. Hmm, just enough Canadiana there to whet my whistle, but without the lousy
winters. I start mentally calculating the cost-benefit of relocating. I’d
have to start cheering for the San Jose Sharks. More frequent visits, at least,
I decide.



New recruits don’t take it for granted. One paused when it was remarked
that his shot at being hired was probably 500 to 1 at best. He thought about
that, and suddenly two months ago seemed like an eternity ago to him, even if
the pay here for entry-level jobs can’t be that great. “This sure
beats where I was when I applied for this job: unemployment… and starving.”
Like any other job. Except this one’s at Google, Inc.



The much-vaunted integration of work and play in the working lives of employees
at companies like Google seems to defy conventional management thinking. Surely
more money and the development of world-beating technology mean more work, and
less play? Isn’t this a market economy, where everything has its price
– an economy in which there are *trade-offs* and disastrous consequences
for those who think they can have it all? Won’t Google get eaten alive
eventually by a more sober, rational, sane competitor who eats her cereal at
home? Is one late-forties CEO really enough adult supervision to keep this bunch
focused? Didn’t someone say that they don’t even *have* a CFO?



Not so long ago I was teaching a university course in public policy wherein
the authors of a piece on unorthodox management and decision-making models used
Apple as an example of a company whose innovations never would have happened
unless play was incorporated into the founders’ daily work. People tend
not to buy into these kinds of ideas when they hear them for the first time.
Parents who have saved every time to send their kids to a good school don’t
want their future management material learning that play is good. A few students
nearly dropped my course that week, all because of that article. Much of the
world is still eager to sign on with an established bureaucracy.



One thing’s certain – once a person gets used to thinking beyond
and around tradeoffs, it’s tough to go back. Unorthodox ways of working
shouldn’t be seen as *causes* of Google’s success any more than any
other single causal factor, like red exercise balls, powerful server hardware,
or, for that matter, youth. But they certainly seem to be a good fit for now.



If youth were the cause of Google’s success, what might that say about
the future? As one industry veteran remarked, most everyone at Google seems
to be in their twenties, whereas LookSmart’s core group are in their thirties
and AltaVista’s perhaps even older than that. Does this mean Google will
become the victim of a “life cycle?” Will 2002 be fondly remembered
as the high point, the day in the sun? When will Googlers start looking as tired
as the rest of us feel?



Why try to write history while there is still so much future left? And just
a little bit of summer left, we hope.



Andrew Goodman is Editor-at-Large of Traffick.com and the author of "Winning Results with Google Adwords". 

 

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