How Google Ran Out of Ideas

The company thinks it’s an innovator. In fact, it’s an imitator—and not the best one, either.

Illustration of a human-face outline in red, green, blue, and yellow with a cloud.
Tyler Comrie; The Atlantic

Microsoft is making a desperate play. Having spent billions on a search engine that no one uses, the company has sunk billions more into equipping it with the chatbot technology ChatGPT, on the theory that answering queries with automatically generated, falsehood-strewn paragraphs rather than links to webpages will be what finally persuades users to switch from Google Search.

Microsoft’s move is understandable: It has tried everything to make Bing a thing, and failed. Harder to understand is why Google is copying Microsoft, with a plan to cram chatbots into every corner of the Googleverse.

To explain why Google has been spooked into doing something so drastic and improbable, we need to consider the company’s history, which has been characterized by similar follies.

In 2010, Google abruptly pulled out of China, after Chinese hacking of Gmail proved to be, finally, too unpalatable for the company. Google had spent four years avidly cooperating with the Chinese Communist Party to censor search results, only to see its infrastructure attacked with, analysts suspected, the government’s acquiescence at a minimum. That must have stung.

I vividly recall when Google entered the Chinese market, in 2006. That was a hell of a moment to do so. Yahoo, the seemingly unstoppable web giant that Google then trounced, had gotten into China back in 1998, the same year Google was founded. Over the intervening eight years, Yahoo had made a string of horrifying compromises to maintain its operations there, culminating in a notorious incident in which the company helped the state prosecute the journalist Shi Tao, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison based on the contents of private Yahoo Mail messages. Yahoo’s role as a “police informant” (per the watchdog Reporters Without Borders) drew stinging criticism, with other Chinese writers such as Liu Xiaobo excoriating Yahoo’s co-founder Jerry Yang for betraying the Chinese people.

Google’s entry into China came amid the swirl of that scandal, and the company’s account of its decision was nothing short of grotesque. At a session with a Google founding board member at the 2006 Web 2.0 Conference, in San Francisco, I stood up in the audience and asked how he could justify Google censoring its search results in China. He explained—to gasps of disbelief—that Google was doing this to improve the user experience of Chinese searchers, who would otherwise be served links to pages that were blocked by the Great Firewall and would grow frustrated when their clicks led nowhere.

The real answer was that Google was incredibly insecure—always was, and still is. The company, which had toppled a market leader by building better technology, is haunted by the fear of being pushed aside itself. Back in 2006, the easiest way to get Google to do something stupid and self-destructive was to persuade Yahoo to do it first.

Weird as it is to think of a company with a market cap of more than $1 trillion being manipulated by its insecurity into poorly considered copycat maneuvers, that wasn’t the only time Google jumped off a bridge because some other company declared bridge-jumping to be the Next Big Thing.

Remember when Google decided it had to close the social-media gap with Facebook, because it feared that social media was going to eclipse search as the way that internet users got their information? A year after Google pulled out of China, it developed Google Plus, a social-media service that was supposed to underpin every part of the company’s sprawling product offerings. Product managers and engineers were given orders to thoroughly integrate Google Plus into the Google stack, and this became a dreaded KPI—key performance indicator—on which bonuses, raises, and performance evaluations all rested.

Why is Google so easily spooked into doing stupid things, whether they involve censorship in China or shoehorning awkward social-media features into places they don’t belong? I suspect that the company’s anxiety lies in the gulf between its fantasy of being an idea factory and the reality of its actual business. In its nearly 25-year history, Google has made one and a half successful products: a once-great search engine and a pretty good Hotmail clone. Everything else it built in-house has crashed and burned. That’s true of Google Plus, of course, but it’s also true of a whole “Google graveyard” of failed products.

Almost every successful Google product—its mobile stack, its ad stack, its video service, its document-collaboration tools, its cloud service, its server-management tools—was an acquisition. In many cases, these acquisitions replaced in-house products that had failed (such as YouTube displacing Google Video).

Google, like every monopolist before it, isn’t a making-things company anymore; it’s a buying-things company. Yet this fact clearly sullies the self-image of Google and lowers Google’s prestige for its users. It also threatens to erode the stock-price premium that Google has historically enjoyed thanks to its unearned reputation as a hotbed of innovation. (I concede that Google is good at operationalizing and scaling other people’s inventions, but that’s table stakes for every monopolist; technical excellence at scale is not the same as creativity.)

Analysts tell us that Google is losing the AI race. Company-wide alarm bells are sounding, and the employees who survived a brutal, unnecessary round of mass layoffs have been ordered to integrate chatbots into search. (Google’s 2022 stock buyback was so colossal that it would have paid the salaries of every laid-off employee for the next 27 years.)

The same old cycle: A monopolistic Google competitor expands into a dubious line of business—last time, it was Yahoo and China; this time, it’s Microsoft and ChatGPT—and Google freaks out. The company’s leadership demands that employees chase its competitor’s gambit, making their compensation dependent on following a commercial fad or integrating the new technical hotness into products that billions of people rely on—even if it makes those products materially worse.

We know how this movie ends. The Google user experience will continue to degrade. The steady decline of search quality, which has seen results devolve into an inedible stew of ads, spam, and self-preferencing links to Google’s own services, will attain a new plateau of mediocrity. And more value will be shifted from searchers, advertisers, and employees to shareholders.

The problem is not that chatbots are irrelevant to search—they’re all too relevant already. Rather, it’s that automated-text generators will produce oceans of spam, and will continue to blithely spew lies with all the brio of a con artist. Google could have responded to this threat by creating tools to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” as the company’s own mission statement proclaims, ones that will detect and discard machine-generated text or fact-check chatbot spam. The company could have reformed its machine-learning-research department, and tried to turn around its deserved reputation as a place where toeing the corporate line is more important than technical excellence.

But it didn’t, and it won’t. The buying-things company persists in striving to be an inventing-things company. Rudderless and out of ideas, coasting on a single technical breakthrough codified a quarter century ago, Google will continue chasing its rivals and calling the process “innovation.”