Google’s Personality Crisis

First published November 15, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

“Be not afraid of marketing: some are born marketers, some achieve marketing, and some have marketing thrust upon them.” — (paraphrased from) William Shakespeare.

Google has never been comfortable as a marketing company. The only reason it became a marketing company (or worse, a media company) is because it happened to stumble on the single most effective marketing channel of all time and had to figure out some way to monetize it. Even then, Adwords wasn’t Google’s idea, but Goto’s (which became Overture, which became Yahoo). Google just stole it and tweaked it a little. Because that’s what engineers do. And that’s what Google is, first a foremost, a company of engineers. Google has worn its marketing mantle the same way I wear a Speedo: uncomfortably (and yes, a little incongruously).

Anytime Google has tried to embrace its inner “marketingness,” the results have ranged from vaguely boring to disastrous. Asking Google to become a marketer is kind of like asking Stephen Hawkins to enter a wet T-shirt content — a terrible waste of cranial processing power (and frankly, not something I’d particularly want to see).

Google had the questionable luck to become fabulously profitable as a marketer, simply because it created a utility that just happened to capture eyeballs when they were attached to wallets ready to spring into action. It was like stealing candy from a baby. But then the hard cold reality hit home. Google became a public company, which meant it had a lot of shareholders who fully expected the stroke of fate that poured money into Google’s coffers to continue. So the company had to find other marketing channels, which in turn meant its strategists had to get over their distaste of marketing in general.

So they, being resolutely Googlish, decided to reinvent marketing to make it less, well, ”markety.” They would introduce their idea of marketing, infused with a pure geekish streak of scalability, market efficiency and engineering precision. I think we all know how that turned out, as the echoes of Google TV, Google Print and Google Radio still reverberate in the Hall of Stupendously Spectacular Failures.

Face it Google. You don’t get marketing, so stop trying. Step away from the bling and tchotchkes. Retreat to the warm embrace of your slide rules and HP scientific calculators.

But, whether it gets marketing or not, Google’s dilemma remains. Its revenues depend on marketing. And marketing revenues can be staggeringly profitable, yet notoriously fickle. It’s all about eyeballs, preferably with wallets attached. Where can Google get more of the same, if not from marketing?

If we break this down, we can assume a few things to be true. Eyeballs will increasingly turn their gaze online, at some screen or another. Also, those eyeballs will be looking for ever-more-relevant stuff to do something with. Finally, if that “stuff” has something to do with buying things, then there’s a good opportunity for companies who market those things.

Let’s look at what Google is good at. Google is good — make that great — at engineering scalable, efficient, redundant systems.  Google strategists believe that if they could totally remove human “noise” from the equation, the world would be a much happier place. It’s Nirvana as envisioned by Stanley Kubrick: a little sterile, but oh-so-dependable.

That skill set is a horrible match for marketers, where empathy is kind of important. But it’s a great match for utility providers. At its roots, that’s what Google was, right from the first inception of “Backrub” running surreptitiously from a Stanford dorm room: it was a tool.

Google has tentatively ventured down this path — with WiFi access, Android, and, most recently, by rolling out high-speed Internet access for Google TV subscribers. But in each of those cases, the utility was not the end goal – it was to provide a platform for more marketing.

At what point will Google principals realize they suck at marketing, but are damned good at providing the underlying infrastructure required? It’s not as sexy, or as profitable, but as Google approaches middle age, isn’t it time they started getting comfortable in their own skin?

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