A recent resignation of Google engineer James Whittaker -- to join that old has-been Microsoft, of all places -- is the latest sign that a big shift is underway at Google, as it shifts from a tech focused innovation hub to an advertising-driven product factory. "The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate," Whittaker wrote on his new Microsoft Developer Network blog. "The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus." Google should be worried, not just for the PR hit of a former employee loudly switching sides, but because struggling Yahoo went down a similar path, and look where it got them.
In the early, heady days, Whittaker writes, "Google was run like an innovation factory, empowering employees to be entrepreneurial through founder's awards, peer bonuses and 20 percent time." The economic reality, he says, "The fact that all this was paid for by a cash machine full of advertising loot was lost on most of us." The stuff that made the company great -- it was the best way to find what you were looking for on the web, and the endlessly in beta projects from Google Labs like Gmail -- were the stuff that made the place exciting. But with a focus on tying all those innovations together under one banner, and especially the launch of Google+, the priorities aren't exactly being driven by technologists any more. It was instead created to fill a marketing and strategic niche -- a need to get into the business of social. Instead of providing something better, Google created a copy-cat Facebook, adding one not-too technology forward addition, circles.
"Google+, the impetus behind it, is unGoogle-ish, in terms of its original intentions," Steven Levy, author of In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives, told The Atlantic Wire "It's hard to separate product and technology," Levy argues. "The product's supposedly technologically based," continues Levy, who doesn't fully believe Google has lost its innovative spark. Supposedly.
Google and Yahoo aren't following the exact same trajectory, but the base business -- selling lots of ads -- in search of a corporate strategy is familiar. Both Yahoo and Google began as technology companies, winning followings with their programming innovations, Yahoo! with its Internet directory of "useful" websites and Google with its search engine with a user-friendly algorithm. Both gained popularity because programmers manipulated technology to better serve the Web's users. As these companies have grown, however, the company missions have shifted away from that mission to something more product driven, or in the words of Whittaker, more "corporate-mandated" focused. And the corporate mandate can often be tough to discern. Tuesday's CNET story, "Google's Entertainment Strategy Is in Disarray," about the difficulty the company has had in selling music and movies over the web, has some of the echoes of this six-year old story in The New York Times, "Yahoo Says It Is Backing Away from TV-Style Web Shows."
Last July Google announced the closure of Google Labs, the center of its product development. Before, Google would give engineers 20 percent time to work on product development, outside of their regular tech duties. Shuttering the center didn't eliminate these projects, but rather integrated them into other company departments. Some of the projects went to Google's super secretive X Labs, but TechCrunch's Alexia Tsotsis guesses that most of it will funnel into other areas of the company. Whittaker confirms this shift, explaining it had a lot to do with social and the inability to compete with Facebook. "It turns out that there was one place where the Google innovation machine faltered and that one place mattered a lot: competing with Facebook," he writes. The result? "The days of old Google hiring smart people and empowering them to invent the future was gone. The new Google knew beyond doubt what the future should look like."
Since the end of Google Labs, it has revamped Gmail, launched and pushed its yet-to-be-successful social network, and altered its popular RSS reader (many loyal users of Google Reader would say it was crippled), all of which has been met with complaints about these products "breaking" the technology. And, beyond providing superbly uncreative and useless features for our Google dashboards, the core of these products also alienate the loyal following Google originality helped cull. While pedaling Google+, we've seen Google compromise search in an attempt to get people using the network. So much so, that some have even taken their search to other navigation bars, including Gizmodo's Mat Honan, who made a public to-do about his switch over, declaring Google search -- the foundation of all things Google -- broken.
Yahoo too began as an Internet tech innovator, starting an early catalog of the Internet back in 1995, employing some basic search algorithms to sift through its database. Since then it has gone through many identity transformations, forgoing its search-ish past when it partnered with AltaVista and later Google for search. "When they sold off search, it cemented the fact that they were not a technology company," explains Levy. And with that the whole culture changed. "[Yahoo said] 'we are not in this business anymore, of hiring the best engineers and the best tech. We are farming it out to Microsoft, so we're not even going to try,'" he explained. Yahoo now focuses on media and product development that might make it money -- email and photo sharing "products" are a priority for 2012, said brand-new CEO Scott Thomas.
Like Google, Yahoo has tried to capitalize on its big audience, throwing failed unimaginative non-ideas on their website, hoping to make money off of their big homepage traffic. It's a throw-things-against-the-wall strategy. Sometimes things work in product development, often they don't. And the clutter is hard to avoid. In January Yahoo killed off 10 of its mobile apps. Roughly 18 months after making a big deal about getting into the original content business, in December Yahoo shut down a swath of entertainment outlets it had started. "We we remain committed to delivering the highest quality, premium experiences for both users and advertisers," read the corporate statement.
So far, Google's product driven mind-set has led to some bad press, Honan (and others) desertion of Bing, some FTC investigations and a 43.46 percent decline of its stock last month. Though, it has started to climb back up, as of late. That's nothing compared to Yahoo. Having employed a decade's worth of this strategy, the once-popular web portal has gone through a series of board shakeups, market pitfalls and general degeneration -- not exactly a path Google wants to take.
"I can't imagine Google doing something like that," continued Levy. But, as recent moves and Whittaker's resignation prove, something like that is happening at the former search company. But, will Google get itself into a Yahoo sized mess?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.