I recently had the pleasure of attending an event at Google’s European HQ in Dublin where Googlers eagerly showed off some new features and alpha and beta products to enable us to enhance our paid advertising campaigns for our clients. The whole event had a fascinating underlying dichotomy between the overarching Google ethos of ‘10x’ and the introduction of several features which are effectively extensions or enhancements of existing technology.
The most interesting presentation was an hilarious and thought provoking speech from David McWilliams, Professor of Global Economics at Trinity Business School, Dublin. The underlying point he was making was that in society and governance, humans make decisions and policy based on entirely rational, conventional wisdom; economists are inherently conservative and base their predictions on expected outcomes, based on ‘what’s always happened’. Recent economic situations across Europe have shown that rational thought created a situation where the vast majority of experts got the situation completely wrong, and continue to do so, argued McWilliams.
He used a great example of the industry in which we (the audience) work. None of us would have jobs, he argued, if it weren’t for brilliantly unconventional people such as Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Elon Musk, Bill Gates etc. Pioneers such as Larry & Sergey at Google set out to reorganise the world’s information. They wanted to capture the entirety of the internet in one place and make it accessible to all. They’re sending weather balloons over deserts to provide internet access to remote tribes. They’re building driverless cars. They’re not thinking in terms of marginal gains, but of ‘10x’ – the Google manifesto.
Professor McWilliams urged us all to think unconventionally; to question the status quo and to always think everything is possible. Google showed us some great tools which argued that as a business it may be more profitable to export goods to South America, rather than our nearest neighbours on the continent due to lower barriers of entry and cheaper sales acquisitions costs. The underlying point being – don’t always assume that conventional is best.
Which is why I’m so confused about Google at the moment. Both in the event which I attended, and then their recent I/O event in Mountain View they released a series of incremental products and features. None of them are mind-blowingly new. At no point did they release anything ‘10x’, unique, pre-eminent.
To run through the main features very quickly, you’ll see that Google are in many cases, playing catch up. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – historically Google have never needed first mover advantage to produce hugely successful products and services. If you’re old enough to remember Dogpile, Ask Jeeves, Lycos, AltaVista, you’ll know how bad search engines were before Google. And if you had to spend years using Internet Explorer, you’ll realise how much better Chrome is; however it does seem at odds with Google’s admirable, ambitious, ’10x’ philosophy.
The Google assistant. It’s difficult to know how different this will be from Siri and Cortana. It has Google search built in, and will learn intuitively about the information that you need, and what you want. But it’s still probably not vastly different from Siri & Cortana.
Google Home. This is more than just a Wifi speaker, we’re told. It has search built in, and that means it can do more than the standard features other providers have, such as streaming music from the cloud, voice control, multimedia screen sharing, setting alarms, timers, to do lists, shopping lists etc. It’ll manage your Smarthome – with home networking, thermostat, lights, switches etc. But it’s still remarkably similar to the Amazon Echo/Dot.
Allo is Google’s Smart messaging app. It looks more intuitive than Whatsapp & Snapchat, in that it has Smart replies - a feature borrowed from Gmail, but it also allows users to transact within the app – to book restaurants, buy tickets etc, all without touching a browser. But again, it’s just messaging. Google may struggle to convert a billion 18-24 year olds away from Whatsapp.
There were several other releases. Duo, a video calling app which isn’t really immediately distinguishable from Facetime and Skype. Android N is a new OS with better Graphics & runtime for gaming. It has built in security upgrades as standard which apparently we should be impressed by, but my immediate reaction was ‘why didn’t it upgrade security as standard before?’ Daydream is the new high quality mobile VR platform which one assumes Google think is better than Facebook’s Oculus.
So why aren’t Google thinking more unconventionally? Arguably they are in their wider Alphabet structure – Driverless cars, patenting glue to ‘catch’ pedestrians when they’re run over by driverless cars, and Project Loon. But within Google itself, it seems like they’re just keeping up with the Joneses.
And what do these developments mean for traditional search? PPC? SEO? If users will no longer have to use a traditional typing interface, and can use search built into messaging, their smartwatch, video calling and Google assistant, how will Google sell and organise their ads? Considering ad revenue from the search business powers the rest of Alphabet, they will find a way to monetise it, but how? Will it mean the death of SEO as they move to a model where they always serve a paid result in any form of search?
Or will Google move away from a search business and monetise themselves in a different way? Will they become the biggest driverless car dealer in the world? Will they become a property company? Will they sell a billion $40 android phones to teenagers in developing countries? It will be interesting to see how Google, and in particular Google Search, develops over the next year or so.