There could hardly be a better moment for Google to change its spots.
With Facebook’s initial public offering looming large, all eyes are on the newest internet darling. Google, for once, finds itself in the shade, even though its revenues and profits still dwarf its social networking rival.
That makes this the perfect time for Google to push ahead faster with the overhaul that has been changing the nature of its business. In the circumstances, the timing of two recent, significant pieces of news from the company hardly seems accidental.
Google once had a single-minded mission: to pass on its users as quickly as it could to other sites on the internet. No more. The new Google wants you to hang around for a while – and it wants to find new ways to make money from you while you are there. What kind of company will ultimately emerge from this transformation is still hard to judge.
That Google 2.0 is quickly taking shape was clear from a one-two punch delivered in January.
First up was the integration of the Google search engine with the Google+ social network. This union of the company’s core product with its most important strategic initiative was easy to predict, but no less powerful for all that.
Flushing all its social networking content through its search filters was the perfect way to put Google+ front and centre before its users. Add in the Android mobile platform, and you can now take a picture on your phone, do a Google search on your PC and see the image you just snapped come up in the results – with no manual steps in between.
Not satisfied with using personal content like this to guide traffic back to its own network, Google has also taken to deploying its search engine for naked promotion of the Google+ pages of celebrities and certain companies. No wonder Twitter was antagonised.
The second part of the one-two punch was last week’s news of a sweeping change to Google’s privacy policies. This formally marks the end of a long period of disjointed service proliferation and the coming of age of a new, integrated Google.
At the beginning of March, a single, simplified approach will replace most of the 70-odd service-specific privacy policies that came before. As the Android example above demonstrates, Google has already broken down the walls between some services to let private information flow freely across its various networks. The privacy spring-cleaning will complete this process and make it explicit.
It will also leave Google with a powerful database of information about its users to sell to advertisers. For the first time, provided you are signed in, your choice of viewing on YouTube will influence the adverts that are served up to you when you are searching on Google.
Once, moves such as these from the dominant internet search company might have seemed almost predatory. Against the backdrop of the impending Facebook IPO, however, they look more defensive. Facebook, after all, has the most powerful integrated database of personal information of any web company – and is quite ready and willing to make that available to advertisers.
Antitrust concerns about Google’s use of its search dominance to favour its other services are also somewhat mitigated by the revolution in online behaviour represented by Facebook. If Google is to stay relevant to its users, it needs to evolve. Competition regulators will be watching closely, but on the principle of “act first, lobby later”, this looks like a sensible approach.
What kind of company this new Google will ultimately turn out to be is hard to judge, though there are distinct echoes of some of its biggest rivals. There is a hint of Microsoft, for instance, in the attempt to tie together different services, which brings to mind the “integrated innovation” that Bill Gates championed in his final years at the software company.
Google’s evolution is also turning it into one part Apple, with its new emphasis on bringing elegant design and ease of use to what could otherwise become complex online experiences. This echoes a wider movement among consumer technology companies, many of which seem to have been consciously elevating design in their thinking since Steve Jobs’ death. Lacking Apple’s tight link between design, product development and engineering, though, most of these will turn out to be only skin-deep.
Also high on Google’s list of priorities is emulating aspects of Facebook’s success. And further transformations may lie ahead: the acquisition of Motorola Mobility, should it get regulatory clearance, will propel the company into the hardware business, taking it even deeper into the delivery of seamless experiences.
The declared path when Google filed for its own IPO eight years ago – “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – was a great rallying cry for a generation of Googlers. But the mission statement that sums up what the company is turning into now has yet to be written.
Richard Waters is the FT’s West Coast Managing Editor