Just how many failed startups can Google afford?
Google have just announced that they are stopping support for 2 products : Google Health and Google Powermeter. On their own these retired services might not mean much, but taken into consideration with Google’s recent history of jumping on the latest bandwagon, throwing some money at it and then failing, sometimes miserably, it starts to make the company look a little desperate. They can surely afford only so many failed startups at the orgnisation, both through acquisitions or new product development, before it starts to affect the bottom line in a very real way. Google are well known for allowing employees to explore their own projects for a set amount of time each week and this can often lead to great things. But Google could be at risk of taking their eye off the ball to such an extent that it begins to impact the organisation. A look at some of the failed products from Google puts this into perspective.
An earlier attempt from Google to socialise the experience within their search engine. They launched Google Answers, which eventually became a hug flop. The site worked by allowing you to post questions and then bid for particular answers, given that these were well researched answers, beyond what you might find on Yahoo Answers, Quora etc.. The only problem for Google was that they couldn’t compete with the free services that were offering this with a much better model and system for the users. Though you can still access previous questions on the site, the verdict now reads :
Google had 2 relatively large attempts at social, firstly with the launch of Google Wave, which was presented as a real-time collaboration space for employees. While on the surface this sounded good, in reality people found it hard to fit this into their online lives, unsure of what purpose it really served that wasn’t already being met by Twitter, Facebook, or Google Docs/email. The problem with Wave was that it was also very much a representation of Google’s approach to product development. They had thrown in every feature under the sun, rendering the site busy, but virtually useless. The site lasted just over a year, having launched in May 2009 and with support being stopped in August 2010 :
Showing one of the scary examples of what can happen when your hot young startup gets swallowed up by Google, Dodgeball was a location service developed by Denis Crowley and Alex Rainert (who later went on to start Foursquare). It was acquired by Google in 2005, Crowley and Rainert left Google by 2007, amidst what they described as an incredibly frustrating experience, then support was officially stopped in February 2009 to make way for their next location service : Latitude. Dodgeball is an unfortunate example of Google’s difficult history with acquisitions, particularly of smaller teams. Of course there are great successes such as Youtube, but you have to wonder what they’re doing wrong, when a team like Crowley and Rainert can leave and create a location service that started to be a real game changer, hitting huge milestones such as 10 million users and a new round of investment at $50 million. Why couldn’t they do that at Google again? It’s perhaps a reflection of Google’s approach to new products, that the talent doesn’t have the chance to shine that it should.
When Google first announced they were getting into print advertising. Everyone was sort of questioning why. Obviously, they had developed a hugely profitable model with Adwords and now they wanted to see if they could translate similar success into print. It was rather odd timing for Google to start, as the troubles the publishing industry have been in for the past few years have been well documented. This may have just been a case of unfortunate timing for Google, with the product really coming into fruition slap bang in the middle of a recession, but it’s also a case of unfortunate direction, as they tried to take on something that was completely out of their remit, again taking their eye off the main prize as they let quiet upstarts like Facebook come and steal a march on them. Had they chosen to focus completely on their online offering, this may not have happened in the way that it did. Google Print Ads was launched in November 2006, and stopped in February 2009.
If you’re looking for a product that really epitomises Google’s troubled approach to new products, then Knol is a pretty good place to look. The idea behind Knol was essentially a wiki – where users could create their own pages of content covering any interest or topic they wanted, with the ability to add in text, photos, videos and links. It was an attempt to launch what was largely billed as a competitor to Wikipedia. The only problem was that Google couldn’t play them at their own game. The site was incredibly tricky to use ( I tried many times to do a few simple things on Knol before giving up in frustration) and they also don’t have the community that Wikipedia has, with it’s sophisticated approach to community moderation. Knol has proved to be a huge flop for Google and a bit of an embarassment.
In another example of a startup failing after an acquisition by Google, Jaiku was a casualty around the same time that Dodgeball and other services were stopped. When it was acquired by Google, Jaiku looked set to be a real competitor to Twitter, and was certainly creating a huge amount of buzz online. But it stayed in beta mode for the entirety of its life at Google. Acquired by Google in 2007, rather than killing off the site completely, in January 2009 Google announced they would be stopping official support for the service but would let it run as an open source project.
The examples above are just a few of Google’s failed startups and show the wide range of areas they have tried to diversify into, not counting the likes of Google Notebook, Google Checkout, Orkut etc.. While they can count successes among Google Apps for business and Youtube, their approach seems to be very much to throw everything at the wall and hope that it will stick. This is epitomised by the two latest services they have killed off – Health & Energy – being way outside of Google’s remit.
And of course the test is now on for new products they’re developing, not least of all social search and the +1 rollout. They’re taking another step forward with this, by adding +1 results to search engine result pages (SERPs) even if you’re not logged in to Google at the time. Google +1 works by adding social elements into your search results, with the idea being originally that you would see results based on how your contacts within your Google profile are responding to search results. The more of your contacts that +1 it, the higher up the results it will move for you. But now they’ve changed it, and removed the need to be logged in to Google at all, with the search engine showing you how many people have +1ed the site overall. As reported in Search Engine Watch, this showed up in a test search for google maps, without being logged in :
The best thing Google ever did was to create an amazing search engine, then build products directly off it, such as Google ads or image search. The search experience doesn’t lend itself to being a social experience as it always just a means to an end and this may be why Google has so many failed startups and new products. They know how to create new ways of getting people to the information and content that they need, but not being the end destination itself.