What’s strategic for Google?

Google seems to be releasing or acquiring new products almost daily. It’s one thing for a couple of programmers to hack together a side project. It’s another thing for Google to put gobs of time and money behind it. The best way to predict how committed Google will be to a given project is to figure out whether it is “strategic” or not.

Google makes 99% of their revenue selling text ads for things like airplane tickets, dvd players, and malpractice lawyers. A project is strategic for Google if it affects what sits between the person clicking on an ad and the company paying for the ad. Here is my rough breakdown of the “layers in the stack” between humans and the money:

Human – device – OS – browser – bandwidth –  websites – ads – ad tech – relationship to advertiser – $$$

At each layer, Google either wants to dominate it or commoditize it. (For more on the strategic move known as commoditizing the complement, see here, here and here). Here’s my a brief analysis of the more interesting layers:

Device: Desktop hardware already commoditized. Mobile hardware is not, hence Google Phone (Nexus One).

OS: Not commoditized, and dominated by archenemy (Microsoft)!!   Hence Android/Google Chrome OS is very strategic. Google also needs to remove main reasons people choose Windows. Main reasons (rational ones – ignoring sociological reasons, organizational momentum etc) are Office (hence Google Apps), Outlook (hence Gmail etc), gaming (look for Google to support cross-OS gaming frameworks), and the long tail of Windows-only apps (these are moving to the web anyways but Google is trying to accelerate the trend with programming tools).

Browser: Not commoditized, and dominated by arch enemy! Hence Chrome is strategic, as is alliance with Mozilla, as are strong cross-browser standards that maintain low switching costs.

Bandwidth:  Dominated by wireless carriers, cable operators and telcos. Very hard for Google to dominate without massive infrastructure investment, hence Google is currently trying to commoditize/weaken via 1) more competition (WiMAX via Clearwire, free public Wi-Fi) 2) regulation (net neutrality).

Websites/search (“ad inventory”): Search is obviously dominated by Google. Google’s syndicated ads (AdSense) are dominant because Google has the highest payouts since they have the most advertisers bidding. This in turn is due largely to their hugely valuable anchor property, Google.com. Acquired Youtube to be their anchor property for video/display ads, and DoubleClick to increase their publisher display footprint. On the emerging but fast growing mobile side, presumably they bought AdMob for their publisher relationships (versus advertiser relationships where Google is already dominant). The key risks on this layer are 1) people skip the ads altogether and go straight to, say, Amazon to buy things, 2) someone like Facebook or MS uses anchor property to aggressively compete in syndicated display market.

Relationships to advertisers:  Google is dominant in non-local direct-response ads, both SMB self serve and big company serviced accounts.  They are much weaker in display. Local advertisers (which historically is half of the total ad market) is still a very underdeveloped channel – hence (I presume) the interest in acquiring Yelp.

This doesn’t mean Google will always act strategically. Obviously the company is run by humans who are fallible, emotional, subject to whims, etc. But smart business should be practiced like smart chess: you should make moves that assume your opponents will respond by optimizing their interests.

Google’s feature creep

Microsoft used to be considered the king of feature creep.  Here was Microsoft Word when it was most cluttered:

thumb-paperclipinterference

I don’t use any of Microsoft’s software anymore, but from what I hear they’ve toned down the feature creep a lot in recent versions of Windows and Word.

Google has been adding so many new features to its results page, they are starting to feel like the new Microsoft.  Here’s an approximation of what Google used to look like (I couldn’t find an image of actual Google 1998 SRPs — anyone have one?)

bbc-google-search

And here is Google today:

Screen shot 2009-12-17 at 11.35.35 AM

Options on the left, ads on top and on the right, news results up top, images, and buttons to vote results up/down and annotate them.  But worst of all are the new scrolling “real time” results.  The static image I’ve embedded doesn’t do justice to how annoying this is. Random, out-of-context, and mostly asinine fragments of conversations scrolling by.  I think it might be Google’s Clippy.