The New Google: How Google+ Forever Changed The Google Landscape

Posted by · March 14, 2012 1:19 pm

‘Tis the season for former executives to tell the world why they left the big time—or so it’s seemed lately. Only a day before Greg Smith published an op-ed in the New York Times explaining his decision to discontinue his long executive tenure at Goldman Sachs, former Google executive James Whittaker published an expose of his own.

Currently a technology executive at Microsoft, Whittaker took to the company’s official blog to explain his decision to leave the GOOG.

“Ok, I relent,” his post began. “Everyone wants to know why I left and answering individually isn’t scaling so here it is, laid out in its long form.”

The former Google executive went on to explain that his post was by no means meant to be some dramatic, exclusive behind-the-scenes look at what goes on inside Google. Instead, this was his personal impression of the new direction the company he once held in the highest regard had now embraced.

“It wasn’t an easy decision to leave Google,” Whittaker continued. “During my time there I became fairly passionate about the company.”

This, he explained, was the Google that “empowered its employees to innovate,” something he suggests was exchanged for an “advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.” This isn’t to make the outrageous claim that Google didn’t start doing advertising until recently. Rather, as Whittaker explained, the focus on advertising at Google was once comparable to that of a TV show. That is, “having great content attracts advertisers.”

This all changed, however, when Larry Page took the helm at Google, says Whittaker.

“Under Eric Schmidt ads were always in the background. Google was run like an innovation factory, empowering employees to be entrepreneurial through founder’s awards, peer bonuses and 20% time,” he reminisced.

In other words, ad revenue was not an end in itself, but largely provided a means of stimulating further innovation at all levels within the company. Innovation which, in turn, would lead to increased profitability and further investment. Thanks to tools like App Engine—whose fee increase last fall rattled developers—Google Labs—which Google shuttered last summer—and open source, Whittaker and his former associates felt like investments, not costs that needed to be streamlined.

“From this innovation machine came strategically important products like Gmail and Chrome, products that were the result of entrepreneurship at the lowest levels of the company,” the former Google exec explained. “In such an environment you don’t have to be part of some executive’s inner circle to succeed.”

Unfortunately, from Whittaker’s point-of-view, that environment has all but disappeared. As the Page regime has shifted Google’s focus to social—more specifically, “competing with Facebook“—which, after a few disappointments like Wave, Buzz and Orkut, gave rise to Google+.

Now the crown jewel of the Google establishment, Google+ proceeded to usurp the once-plenteous channels dedicated to innovation and entrepreneurship that Whittaker and others used to treasure. The philosophy of the “old Google”—complete with its playground-like allure that attracted smart employees looking for a place to be invested in—was wholly replaced by a sleeker, more powerful “new Google,” ready to “fix” social sharing once and for all.

But what this really meant, suggests Whittaker, was that Google wasn’t satisfied being left out, deprived of its piece of the social pie. There was nothing about sharing that really needed fixing. Sharing was alive and well—just not on a site owned by Google.

“Google was the rich kid who, after having discovered he wasn’t invited to the party, built his own party in retaliation,” Whittaker surmised. “The fact that no one came to Google’s party became the elephant in the room.”

Rather than being focused on quality content as the basis for attracting big ticket advertisers, the “new Google” seems bent on the commoditization of something that simply can’t, and frankly shouldn’t be. Whittaker’s daughter is right: “Social isn’t a product.” It’s people. Right now, most of those people are on Facebook and Twitter.

And unless the content-centric philosophy of the so-called old Google is rediscovered, that’s probably where most of them will remain.