As another year dawns, life is still pretty good for Google but ever more complicated.
With that, let's reexamine the five New Year's resolutions we outlined for Google at the start of 2010 to see how the company lived up to that unsolicited advice, and offer more of the same for 2011.
First, last year's report card:
1. Don't forget where you came from: This resolution involved priority No. 1 at Google: remain the world's leading provider of Internet searches by a comfortable margin. It passed this test with ease: despite significant investment on Microsoft's part into Bing, and Yahoo's declaration that its back-end outsourcing strategy would lead to front-end breakthroughs, Google ended 2010 pretty much where it started, actually gaining a slight amount of market share according to ComScore's November 2009 to November 2010 comparison.
2. Get control of the engineers: Google probably wishes it had paid a little more attention to this one. Two 2010 incidents involving Google engineers gone wild--the now-infamous Wi-Fi Street View case and the quieter (and creepier) firing of David Barksdale--showed that Google's power to amass and organize vast amounts of data can be seductive to those with poor oversight or ulterior motives.
Google also stepped on its foot in launching Google Buzz with the assumption that users always wanted their most-frequently e-mailed contacts to also be their friends in a social-networking setting. Privacy training has been increased and Alma Whitten was tapped to put a public face on Google's commitment to privacy, making it fair to say that keeping the trust of an increasing wary public in 2011 is essential to Google's well-being.
3. Get HTML5 standards finalized: This one isn't really Google's fault, but its vision of the Web as the premier development platform of our time is still a ways off. Standards bodies are famously contemplative, but Google also struggled to prove its own case that the Web can be king by missing a deadline to ship a productive version of Chrome OS.
4. Live up to the promise of Google Books: Amazingly, the Google Books saga will drag on into yet another year as Google's settlement with authors and publishers remains in legal limbo. By the end of the year Google did manage to launch its e-book store and release an interesting project on word usage over centuries, but is no closer to lifting the cloud of uncertainty over Google Books at the end of 2010 than it was at the beginning of the year.
5. Clarify your mobile strategy: Google definitely got the message on this one, scaling back its ambitious Nexus One project after it proved unpopular with both phone buyers and its business partners alike. Freed from such distractions, Android is now poised to grow even more in 2011 than it did over the past year as the iPhone alternative, and Google is about to make nearly $1 billion a year on mobile advertising through Android and mobile search, it revealed toward the end of the year.
Here are three more things Google might want to think about in 2011.
Fight the government--and win
Google is at the point in its story arc where nearly everything it will do in 2011 will be scrutinized by some branch of the U.S. government, although it's arguable it has already been there for years. Still, there's little doubt the supervision is taking a toll and these concerns are already on the table in Europe.
The main problem--beyond the outcome of any potential regulation--is that larger start-ups aren't going to be as interested in joining Google if they have to put their life on hold for six months while the government dithers over whether or not the deal is kosher. A great deal of Google's success in 2010 came from larger acquisitions that might not have been approved if they were proposed in 2011, such as DoubleClick, AdMob, or YouTube.
Groupon, the darling of the daily deals department, was said to harbor such concerns as acquisition talks broke down between it and Google. AdMob was also reported to have sought an enormous "breakup fee" should its acquisition by Google have been squashed by federal regulators. At some point, doing business with those larger start-ups will stop making economic sense.
The hassle and distraction that a public government trial could present for Google executives is not exactly something to be welcomed. But at the same time, the uncertainty over what Google might and might not be allowed to do isn't good for business either, and it also makes regulators look silly: either put your cards on the table and prove an unchecked Google is bad for the country or stop listening to whining from its competitors.
Google and the U.S. government are going to clash in a big way at some point: might as well break that ice in 2011.
Find your soul--and your scheduler
For many years, it was pretty simple to understand Google: it operated the best Internet search engine the world had yet seen, able to match quickly queries on virtually anything conceivable with relevant Web pages.
Google is so much more than that now. Search hasn't gone away, but Google is increasingly a consumer software company, with products that are used in mobile phones, televisions, offices, and an ever-increasing array of gadgets.
One challenge highlighted by that growth is that Google needs to make prettier things. Google's products in these markets tend to come off to average consumers as geeky and over-complicated, as even Google's Andy Rubin, leader of the Android project, admitted late in 2010.
For some reason, Google's Web design aesthetic--simple, uncluttered, and usable--doesn't always surface in its consumer software products. It's a little unfair to compare Google directly to Apple in this regard, since Apple has so much more control over how iOS software is presented to the end user, but fairly or unfairly, that's the benchmark for mobile consumer software at the moment and Google doesn't always measure up to that standard.
Also, while "launch and iterate" is a fabulous product development strategy for the Web--where subtle changes can be made extremely quickly and your customers pay nothing for the experience--it doesn't always work in consumer electronics. The initial experience needs to be right--or at least not awful--the first time the buyer uses the product or negative associations start to set in no matter how quickly a patch is released.
Google therefore needs to release beefier versions of its software more consistently to give users and partners a chance to catch their breath. For example, the dizzying pace of Android development has been great for consumers and phone makers in one sense but can also cause confusion regarding which version of Android runs the fancy whiz-bang app that was just advertised by Verizon, and when their phone maker might approve that version for their device. Likewise, a more fully baked Google TV might have prevented some of early criticism of the software.
Be social or change the playing field
Few companies are really trying to compete against Google in Internet search these days. Instead, those bent on capturing eyeballs and advertising dollars on the Web are organizing their users in social groups, building Web versions of coffee shops and night clubs where people enjoy spending time and learning about new things from their friends as opposed to building the libraries people need for research purposes but would rather not wind up on a Saturday night.
Google is clearly aware of this trend but has little to show for efforts in 2010 to be more social. The Web is not a zero-sum game: people will always turn to the search box for things they can't or would rather not ask their friends, but they'll also ask their group of Web contacts for information about a lot of things that Google's bots can't quite duplicate, like whether or not the boutique on the corner has something that matches the colors in my living room, or that the one bar on the corner has a bartender who went to college with my sister and can totally hook us up with free drinks.
Google needs to figure out a way to get people to share that kind of information on its domain or convince Facebook and its users to open much of that information to its search bots. It might be easier to do just enough in social to keep Facebook on its toes while getting busy developing the next Web organization matrix.
Just as social networking has started to reshape how information is collected and stored on the Internet, something will come along to reshape how social networking operates. If Google wants to be a Web influencer for decades it can't miss out on that next development.