Remember When Google Was A Search Engine?

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The lineup of products announced at Google I/O last week was disorienting: JellyBean, Nexus 7, Nexus Q, Google Glass, an updated Google Maps, Google Now and so on. It was about as disorienting as reading and navigating through the entire Wikipedia entry for Google or getting stuck in that “YouTube” parody loop where you can’t find the thing you’re searching for because there are so many viral spoofs of it.

Search is so broken … Google, what happened to that problem? I thought you were ONIT.

It’s not exactly clear when Google ceased to be a search company. It became more like a company that wanted a finger in every pot in order to protect its future as a search company; Perhaps it was the early acquisition of Google Earth? Perhaps, but, if the marker only counts when viewed as a defensive measure, my guess would be the later acquisition of YouTube.

Anyways, what is clear after this Google I/O is that Google is now a hardware company, a social company and a mobile company; And it’s a company destined to be at war with other companies.

David Pogue put it well in his sprawling, and not entirely correct, analysis of what lies ahead for the search engine’s Tablet front, “Nexus phone, Nexus tablet, Nexus sphere thing; what is Google thinking, anyway? If it truly wants to emulate Apple, it should minimize confusion, not foster it.”

Some would argue that Google’s “spray and pray” product development philosophy is strategic, “Overall, Google has lost focus because it had too,” Josh Constine explained in a Branch chat on the subject, “The genesis of social and mobile means the Internet can’t be won with one product anymore, even search.”

“The problem is they never talk about context as to why they do those experiments so people don’t quite grok their long-term impact,” Om Malik defends the company’s product ambitions in that same thread.

“Google Glass is a perfect example – looks like a toy but it is the future of information retrieval.”

Except that when I casually ask a somewhat prominent Googler whether the company did indeed have some overarching plan to get to the “future of information retrieval,” as Om implies here, he said something to the sentiment of, “Oh, no, there’s no plan. The different factions just duke it out.” Mind you, this was just after io had finished.

Google Glass has great potential, but the problem is that there’s an acute lack of a grander vision at Google (did you see what I did with “vision” right here?). Despite Larry Page’s efforts to pare stuff down as a CEO, “More wood behind fewer arrows” doesn’t seem to be happening. As Internet comedian Aaron Levie put it,“Google is focused, on everything.”

“With all of these services, they’re trying to compete with nearly every startup and big company on the planet,” Levie said when I emailed him to elaborate on his initial tweet. “That’s going to be extremely tough, and not a recipe to do anything really well (see: Google Health, Wallet, Checkout, Latitude, Offers, etc.).” There’s this nagging suspicion that Page is driving without a map.

I guess Google fans (which, in a sense, I am) just hang onto the Google products we love while forgiving the company its trials and errors, of which there are many. We hang on to a perverse hope that there is some sort of conscious macro-vision for the company and everything will fall into place. This hope assumes that products like Google Buzz and iGoogle are just negligible collateral damage in the quest for truly visionary products like Google Glass (you see what I did just there with “visionary”?).

To achieve this macro-vision, the acquisitions that indeed bolster the platform’s ability to protect itself from Apple, Google and Facebook’s advances, like YouTube, should be brought to the forefront of Google’s expansion efforts and be approached as a search problem.

Like, why do you think Google Hangouts are one of the most popular things on Google+? Because they play to one of the search engine’s strengths. So, it should be 1000% times easier to search for videos on YouTube then.

We Google fans are hanging on because we secretly believe that genius Google developments like Google Glass will eventually allow us to remember the name of that guy we barely recognize in the restaurant when it eludes us. Because gosh, we are so bad with names!

Top image via: Engadget. Bottom image via: JohnBiggs