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Google: The emperor with few clothes?

Eve Dmochowska is the founder of , a site that helps you choose your ideal medical aid plan, and of, South Africas first fully digital health broker and advice house.

Google has been referred to as a “one-trick pony”, since most of its $24 billion revenue comes from advertising that is contextually served to its users. Google usually responds by saying something to the tune of: “If we are a one-trick pony, it's not a bad pony to have”. And of course, they are right. So far.

Google makes most of its money by serving ads to a receptive audience when they search for a product. It makes perfect sense: when you are searching online for a landscaper in your area, you are very likely to click on an ad for a landscaper in your area. And that landscaper will happily pay a premium for that click, because his relative chances of conversion are quite high. All Google needs is an audience who wants to find things.

In theory, Google’s algorithm allows it not only to index the web’s content, but also to determine which content is most trustworthy and relevant to your search query. This used to work well, and it is how Google managed to build market share and revenue at unprecedented rates over the last 10 years.

Google was able to score using this business model because it had a unique and efficient way to index the web’s information, serve up excellent search results, and thus guarantee itself a captive, eager-to-return audience. Surely, over the last 10 years it would be difficult to find an online service that served the mass audience better.

But, this is the web. And things evolve. Sometimes in unexpected directions, and at unprecedented speeds. And I am seeing two huge problems for Google: the quality of search results and the preferred source of information filter.

Repeatedly, when searching Google for information, I am given results for information that was written in 2004, or even before. Hugely irrelevant, and hugely annoying. Also, a lot of the first page results turn out to be nothing by “spam” websites, offering no depth of information, and wasting my time. To top it all off, Google’s search results are peppered with Facebook and Twitter statuses, images, blog entries, video results etc.

For example, not one of the first page organic results for my local search for “price of iPhone” serves up anything from 2010, and certainly nothing for the pricing of the latest iPhone model released this week, which is obviously the information I need.

Which leads me to Google’s second problem: My preferred source of information is changing. It’s becoming more social. Rather than google for the price of an iPhone, I will ask my social network via Twitter, Facebook or even a screened email list. And I promise you, I will get the answer within a minute or two. It’s also my social network that acts as a filter for worthwhile online content, and a sounding board for my own initiatives. And because I am in control of this network, I can hone and adapt it to my needs, continuously.

My social networks (formal or informal) kill two birds with one stone – they are both fun and informative at the same time. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t waste my time on them. And time is what I give them in return, which means that my interaction with Google is lessening. And if my time with Google is lessening, so are my chances on clicking on their ads, and driving their revenue.

Google has woken up to this, but very, very late in the game. And this time, the problem cannot be solved by the method Google knows best: throwing heaps of money at it. Last time Google dropped the ball on a web phenomenon of this proportion was when it turned a blind eye to the growing popularity of online video. That mistake was solved by spending $1.65 billion to buy YouTube, and thus still winning first place in the online video race.

But Google cannot buy a social network that will compete with Facebook, or even Twitter, because there isn’t one to buy. The worth of a social network is not measured by its features, but by how many people that are relevant to me use it. And now, in 2010, Facebook and Twitter are on the exponential growth curve, and no one can catch up.

So what to do? To its credit, Google is waking up. It has tried to launch networks that offer completely new features to those of the Big Boys, but for the most part it has admitted defeat, and pulled the plug. There are rumours of a “Google Me” product, that could be Google’s answer to its problems, but at this stage there is little proof that it is happening, and even less proof that it will be a success.

Google does have things going for it, of course: a still massive user base of its search engine, dominance of the mobile market, 170 million Gmail users whose most powerful social network (their email contacts) is lying dormant, more cash than pretty much anybody else, and still enough user-awe to ensure that few are pointing out that the emperor of the Internet is wearing drab clothing.

But Google’s biggest asset might also be its biggest liability: a complete lack of fear of failure. If Google launches a venture and it fails, Google shrugs its shoulders and moves on. No worries. This might breed an attitude of complacency, which Google can no longer afford. It needs a product that will wow us. And it needs one soon.

If Google wants to continue to be the biggest online player, it needs to adapt its game, become more responsive to users search needs, and offer best value for the time we spend online.

If anyone can, I’d imagine that Google can. But I can’t imagine what it’s waiting for. DM


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