A “Page” from Google’s PR Book

First published February 10, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Somehow, I’ve gotten myself squarely in the middle of Bing and Google again. Sometimes I should just keep my big mouth shut. The latest brouhaha is Google calling Microsoft a bunch of “cheaters” for copying search results. I called it “silly.”And it is. Pretty much everyone in the search universe (outside Mountain View) agrees that this is much more about Google trying to give Bing a black eye in the media than any serious threat to intellectual property. But somehow, as Google was swinging, it’s the one that ended up with the shiner.

If this were a one-off incident, I’d put it down to some misplaced indignation and bad PR “spin” advice. Google is within its rights to bring it to Bing’s attention. I just think Google didn’t have to be so pissy about it.

A New Attitude (and it ain’t pretty)…

But I don’t think this was a misstep. I think it’s all part of a new attitude, and a sad one at that, for Google. I wrote about this almost a year ago, in April, when I found Google becoming increasingly brittle and defensive in its public face:  “The humility is disappearing and hubris again rules the day. It’s almost as if, now that Google is the king of the hill and is drawing more than their fair share of scrutiny, much of it negative, they’ve gone into defensive mode. They’ve circled the wagons and drawn more inside.”

Apparently I’m not the only one who’s noticed that. Kara Swisher, in a post titled “Google’s Bing Attack Has Larry Page Written All Over It,” says Google’s new attitude comes right from its new CEO: “I would wager that we’re about to see a lot more of this pugnacious, in-your-face tone from Google under Page’s leadership, which could have far-reaching implications for the company.

While I have no idea if it was his decision to let loose the dogs of algo-war on Microsoft, many with knowledge of how Google manages its public persona observed to me this week that this was just the kind of popping off that the outgoing Schmidt often tried to mitigate and soften.

Google on a Ram-Page…

I now suspect that Google’s increased hubris (that I mentioned in last year’s column) was caused by Page flexing his influence within the organization. I trust Swisher’s take on the mood at Google. I’ve heard similar stories of Page’s “nerdily indignant voice” from others unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of a tirade. Now, however, it’s permeating the company, and that’s sad.  Recently, I did a pretty extensive series of posts on where search might be heading. I had open and free- ranging conversations with Microsoft and Yahoo, but Google was “too busy” to have a real interview. I had to submit my questions by email and Google choose simply to ignore some of them because the company disagreed with my premise. Undertones of “how dare you question us?” rang clearly through my communications with the Big G.

I miss the days when Google was much more open-minded and accessible. I actually could get Marissa Mayer on the phone to talk about Google’s search interface. I could pick Peter Norvig’s brain about the future of the industry. Once I even had Eric Schmidt ask me “what [he] needed to know.” But that was then, and this is now.

I suspect there is much we don’t know about the transition from Schmidt to Page. The cracks are beginning to show in the Googleplex. I would guess the brittle bravado we’re seeing on the outside is masking a very un-Googlelike nervousness in Mountain View. Aaron Goldman nailed some of the symptoms in yesterday’s Search Insider.  Last April, I said, “I have no idea what this means in the big picture, but I do know that the tone and temper of an organization is a pretty reliable indicator of future success.” The signals I’m seeing with increased frequency indicate trouble ahead, and quite possibly, the most spectacular flame-out in high-tech history.

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