Google’s mission and the economic colonization of the web

Aaron Goldman and I agree – it’s time for Google to rethink their mission statement. But we disagree on the reason. Goldman thinks it’s time “to call a spade a spade” and for Google to come clean on their intention to grab as many ad dollars as possible. From this perspective, the change in the mission statement is really just to better align it with Google’s business.

I think “organizing the world’s information” needs to be changed for a different reason. I think there are inherent limitations in it that may serious impact Google’s revenue stream in the future.

A Quick Update

But first, some background. Eric Schmidt has moved into that corporate limbo called “executive chairman”-ship. I don’t really know what an Executive Chairman does. I asked Google and it’s also pretty fuzzy on the concept. According to Schmidt, it’s to focus on external partnerships and to “advise” Larry and Sergey. To me, it sounds like a long and polite good-bye. Whatever we know about the shift, I guarantee there’s more to the story.

Also, Google rocked expectations on Q4 earnings, so all appears to be rosy in Google-world. But quarterly earnings calls are a notoriously poor indicator of the strategic health of an organization. They reflect the success of strategic decisions made a year or two ago and the ability of the organization to execute against them. They tell you nothing about the strategy today or how the company may do in the future. Which brings us back to the mission statement.

Missionary Work

Organizing the world’s information sounds like a lofty goal, and it is. It was entirely appropriate given the “wild-west” nature of the web when Google first appeared in 1997. But on the web, information equals data, and data comes in two forms: structured and unstructured. Google’s mission was defined at a time when almost everything online was unstructured. It was a mess. It needed to be organized. And Google’s revenue model sprung from its ability to match consumer intent with all this unstructured content. It was a broad based attempt to tame the web, and it was tremendously successful.

But the success came with limitations. If you’re going to try to organize unstructured information, you have to rely on some method to interpret the meaning of the information. You need some framework to organize information into. Google, like every other engine, relied on language as a measure of relevance – specifically matching content to a query made up of keywords. But language is notoriously difficult for machines to get right, because it’s ambiguous. Consider that words like “set”, “cut” and “break” can be defined in close to a hundred different ways. Google’s struggle for the past decade and a half has been dealing with the difficulties of organizing unstructured data.

Another challenge is trying to deal with all unstructured data in the same interface. Google has tried to meet the challenge by incorporating more and more content categories into the main results page. There are currently more than a dozen categories you could conduct your search in. The elegance of the one size fits all engine is rapidly becoming clunky and awkward.

The Colonization of the Web

Over the same time that Google has been pursuing its mission, the web has become economically colonized. Where there’s an opportunity to make a buck, there is motivation to move data into a more structured format. Pockets of economically viable data have become increasing structured in the past 10 years, including all travel categories, books, movies, music and many commonly purchased products. Increasingly, we’re going to see this colonization, which will organize information in a way that Google could never do “on-the-fly”. And as this data becomes more structured, it allows for a different interaction with it. It becomes more functional and more useful. It moves from conducting a search to using an application. Think of the difference between trying to plan a trip using nothing but Google and planning the same trip using Kayak. That’s the difference between dealing with unstructured and structured data.

This colonization will hit Google where it hurts most – the highest volume, most commercially relevant searches. At this point Google still acts as a navigational path to these structured destinations, but this is a transitional band-aid at best. The web is growing up and it’s being tamed in bits and pieces; not by Google’s algorithmic wizardry but by commercial opportunities.

Google is right to focus on the possibilities of mobile. More and more of our online activity will happen there. But mobile is not a new frontier, it’s simply a new view into the same landscape. It will leverage the same colonies of structured data. In fact, the mobile use-case is perfectly suited to dealing with structured data. It will accelerate the colonization.

Google’s concept of “organizing” falls short of our end goal, which is using information to do things with. If I were Google I’d be doing some word-smithing using words like “useful” and “functional.”

Originally published in Mediapost’s Search Insider January 27, 2011