What’s So Different about Google?

Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor who also writes the blog Buzz Machine, has a new book out, “What Would Google Do?” arguing that all companies should try to think like Google. I’m not a big believer in magic potions, silver bullets, secret formulas. Further, I doubt that most companies can repeat Google’s success even if they think like Google — just like wearing Air Jordans does not make me better at basketball.

I’ve not yet read this book, but it’s getting plenty of buzz — Business Week  even put it on its cover this week, with an excerpt. Jarvis is consistent in his themes, and just from looking at the excerpts out there, I have issues with his argument.

First, the themes. Jarvis’s real point is not to be like Google, he tells Newsweek in this interview, but to be like a company that has profitably figured out the Internet — others are Amazon.com, Craigslist and Facebook. He says businesspeople should pick one such firm and try to emulate it wherever possible. That’s reasonable advice on its face, though the business models for each of these seem very different to me, and in the case of Facebook are still emergent.
Yet his book excerpt in Business Week, entitled “Detroit Should Get Cracking on its Googlemobile,” vacillates between saying Detroit should become PimpMyCar.com and Detroit should get out of car-making entirely. Jarvis barely acknowledges that even successful auto companies don’t act like Google. Or maybe they do, and he’s missing it. He says, for instance, that car companies should issue beta-mobiles, just like software firms issue beta code, as if automakers haven’t for years trotted out concept cars, or as if it would be easy to upgrade a beta car (is he not familiar with the failed electric car beta test in California?). He seems completely unaware of something like Project Driveway, the test fleet of hydrogen-powered cars GM rolled out last year. Detroit may not be as aggressive about commercializing what consumers do to their cars as it was when Tom Wolfe wrote the Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, but Detroit clearly was a pioneer in corporate use of crowd-sourcing, and it still has people paying attention, as this piece about biodiesel, Motorhead Messiah, shows (yes, the piece skews towards “Detroit is stupid,” but there are a number of unsung auto company officials who seem to be helping out the piece’s hero). Detroit looks more like Google than Jarvis gives it credit for. So far, the model hasn’t translated.

Perhaps that’s because Jarvis’ unspoken point seems to be that businesses that still make physical goods need to stop. He doesn’t say this quite so directly,  but it’s implicit in his ‘atoms are a drag’ mantra, repeated in the book and in interviews. Plus, in his excerpt he claims that Zipcar is the Google of car companies, because it’s figured out that people don’t want cars, they want to be transported. That’s what smart automakers should do, says Jarvis. Isn’t this really just saying that smart automakers would stop making cars?

The model seems to be, Ford, GM, Chrysler, you own slices of foreign car makers better suited to being in a commodity business like building things made of atoms. Stop pretending factories should be something other than sweatshops, and factory workers can have middle class lives. Get out of the business of running factories and dealer networks, and go virtual. Use all the data you have from your years of selling cars and direct your partners on what to build.

Business Week gives him a pass on this in an interview about the book. Newsweek is less kind, raising the unpleasant question of why Google itself isn’t more like the Google of Jarvis’ book.

Newsweek: Are there any areas in which Google itself doesn’t act very “Google-y?” Not disclosing its advertising revenue splits, for example.
Jarvis: Right. There are areas where Google doesn’t act very Google-y, which are mainly about transparency. It can’t be transparent about its algorithms and how they operate, because then they will get gamed more. And those are special sauce. I wish Google were more open about its advertising arrangements and splits, so we had a better sense of the value of the market; I wish it were more open about the sources that it puts into Google News.

This comment is telling. In fact, it shows that if you want to be like Google, act like its model: Microsoft. Like Microsoft, Google is very protective of the things that make it money. Like Microsoft, it is very aggressive about doing whatever it can to undermine its competitors. Microsoft gave away Internet Explorer to hurt Netscape. Google gives away (or sells very cheaply) Google Docs to hurt Microsoft Office. Google is less ham-fisted about this than Microsoft was when it was killing Netscape. It certainly sounds friendlier when Google and other Web firms tout the idea of open information. But then, these firms all make money off the information we share with them. The strategy is Microsoft’s, applied through a different filter. Clearly, despite what Jarvis says, being transparent and open about everything is not what Google would do. The media’s been trying to be like Google for years now, and has only succeeded in destroying its business model, as Jarvis well knows (except in those rare cases where a savvy media company became a dominant search engine in its region). True, much of that is because of disruptions in how advertising gets delivered, and where people spend their time. But it should be clear by now that giving away traditional newspaper and magazine content online simply doesn’t pay.

I have found myself baffled, as well, at Jarvis’s assertion that Google listens to people. I have posted about my inability to find my Web site, www.mffitzgerald.com, in Google’s search engine (see Life Without Google). I still have no idea why my Web site went from first listing for a Google search on “Michael Fitzgerald” in March to completely unfindable in its search engine by June (my site in that period remained in first on Live and fell from 2nd to 4th on Yahoo). Something related to me is again the top listing on Google search for Michael Fitzgerald — my biography on BNET, and not my Web page or even this blog page. Also in the top 10 listings is my bio on CIO, another place where I contribute. Granted, there are 216,000 responses when you Google “Michael Fitzgerald,” and I didn’t look at all of them, but once I hit a Twitter post of mine, I figured it was time to quit.

I have used Google’s automated customer service to try to find out why. I might as well be talking to an invisible mule. Google’s customer service bot was designed by some Sartre-loving engineer for his (or her) own amusement.

I am sure there are things of value in this book, and I hope to read it in full soon. But the ones that Jarvis is touting seem thin.

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