Today marks Google co-founder Larry Page's first day back on the job as CEO since he handed over the reins to Eric Schmidt in 2001. He's been deeply involved with the company during Schmidt's tenure, of course, but in a decade's time the job of chief executive of Google has invariably changed. A lot. Instead of a company on a fast rise, it's a conglomerate that in the meantime has gotten itself involved in telecommunications, self-driving cars, television hardware, and venture capital investing.
So maybe this is what Page should be focusing on for his first few months back on the job. A to-do list, if you will.
1. Create a Facebook profile. A recent Fast Company article about Page's return to Google pointed out the curious fact that he uses neither Facebook nor Twitter. He doesn't need to tweet; the on-the-fly, instant broadcast doesn't seem like the best medium for the CEO of a heavily scrutinized public company. (His predecessor, Schmidt, uses Twitter but rarely updates it.) But Page should know the ins and outs of Facebook, and the world should know that he does.
The reasoning here is that Facebook has more or less completely conquered online social networking, something that Google has repeatedly tried to emulate and has failed at over and over. When Google makes a "me-too" social-media product in reaction to existing trends, like OpenSocial in response to Facebook's developer platform or Knol in response to Wikipedia, it tends to flop. Other social-media projects, like Google Wave (which the company considers to have been an experiment) and the beleaguered Google Buzz, were also failures. Google's lack of direction with regard to social media is perhaps summed up best by the fact that it acquired text-messaging service Dodgeball in 2005, only to frustrate its founders so much that they quit; one went on to found Foursquare, an obvious sequel to Dodgeball and a well-regarded industry trendsetter (if not a runaway mainstream success just yet).
Last week, when Google announced another "experiment," this one a social news service of sorts called "+1," it was well-received. Instead of trying to build a new social network, Google was taking something it does very well--search--and adding a little bit of social-media flavor to it. That's the right social strategy for Google, and it's one in which Google executives would do well to appear a little more diplomatic with Facebook. This might also prevent the social network from severing API ties with Google as it's done in the past.
Facebook's still the competition. Google just shouldn't act like it is.
2. Plug the leaks. Google is a company that likes to explore, likes to ask "What if?"--but when it comes to business deals, this kind of open attitude can lead to what can look like a track record of failure. That's why it would do well for Google, under the auspices of Page, to ensure that better steps are taken to ensure that some things, as they should be, are kept under wraps. This is where Google's culture of openness can and will come back to bite it. For every nine- or ten-figure deal that Google pushes through, there seem to be two others that flounder. And they flounder publicly, because inevitably word gets out.
Sometimes these leaks are strategic, and as a journalist I can't deny that my entire profession loves them--and Google obviously has little sway over the reporting of rumors that simply aren't true. But Google's in a position where it runs the risk of looking not just like a spendthrift, but like a behemoth with badly overstretched resources. It sure doesn't look good when Google appears to be putting massive, borderline desperate offers on the table--$500 million for Yelp, $6 billion for Groupon, $10 billion for Twitter, $1 million to keep a single engineer from defecting to Facebook--especially when, as in the first two examples, the offer was snubbed. On the outside (and maybe on the inside, too) reports like these give the impression that Google is losing its deal-making mojo.
3. Make Google's China doctrine clear. This is crucial, as Google's obstacles in China continue to grow ever bigger and ever more insidious. Not only has it said that the Chinese government is interfering with its services, it also faces more basic business competition from Chinese search engine Baidu.
With the management change from Schmidt to Page, Google's strategy is unclear. It's been reported that when Google pulled its operations out of China, it was Page and co-founder Sergey Brin's decision--and that Schmidt had disagreed with them. Page, or someone on his team, needs to make things straightforward as soon as possible.
4. Don't get complacent about Android. In the years between Page stepping down as CEO of Google and returning to the position this week, Eric Schmidt was named to Apple's board of directors and then stepped down when the conflicts of interest between the two companies began to escalate. Most of this is on the mobile front--neither "smartphone" nor "app" was part of the vernacular when Page was CEO the last time around.
Thanks to its distributed strategy, Android devices are on pace to be the dominant force in smartphones in the next few years. Page's priority here will be to continue this growth--and find new areas to grow into. The last thing Google will want to do is pull a Microsoft and grow complacent with the No. 1 spot in the market while Apple (or some other competitor we haven't yet envisioned) plots a counter-insurgency.
5. Take the Google jet down to Hollywood--or hire someone to do it for you. Page has a great opportunity in the fact that the film studios' current digital bogeyman is Netflix, not Google. The problem is that Page himself is pure Silicon Valley and hardly a social animal. Perhaps one of the items on his agenda should be to find a way to get a seasoned entertainment industry veteran on board Google as a sort of mediator between Mountain View and the studios, the rare sort of executive who's both schmoozy social animal and enthusiastic geek capable of hyping up the currently lukewarm Google TV. (Larry, good luck finding him or her.) Thus far, Google's Hollywood veterans have been largely restricted to YouTube, which operates as a semi-autonomous unit. Google may well need something bigger than this.
But the search would be worth it. Google might have a lot of odd side projects, after all, but I don't think it'll be picking up an HBO-caliber David Fincher-created drama anytime soon.
6. Reverse the rule that forbids engineers from keeping pet snakes in their cubicles. Times have changed since way back in 2007, when "Kaiser" the python fled his cage in a Google satellite office (on April Fool's Day, to boot). We've learned in recent weeks that escaped snakes are not only comedy gold, but great for publicity--just ask the Bronx Zoo. Larry, I know I said above that you don't need to use Twitter, but maybe you should author an anonymous account under the nom de plume of a friendly serpent who slithers about the Googleplex and keeps those unlimited-granola stations free of mice. Imagine all the fun you could have.
The more ssssserious point here is that Google's corporate culture is one of its laudable hallmarks, and if Page's return can bring back some of the eccentric and groundbreaking attitude that was crucial to its rise in the first place, he'll be off on the right track.
7. Turn an eye to Redmond, and take note. Larry Page's Google, not Bill Gates' Microsoft, is now the one in the antitrust magnifying glass. It's not clear whether Google has yet learned the lessons of the past. Especially since this time around it's Microsoft that's filing the antitrust complaints--against Google.