Is Google in Trouble? Yes, and There is No Coming Back

The recent past has not been kind to Google. Beyond a shifting financial tech landscape, many of its latest injuries have been self-inflicted. One has to wonder what is happening to the once seemingly-omniscient internet pioneer that was ushering a new age of information and transparency. In reality, the Mountain View company might be in trouble.

The reason is plain to see—and with foreboding precedent—but first a glance at the stumblings of the tech giant over a much different landscape than when it came to existence in 1998.

The tea leaves of Google’s fall might have been read as early as 2013, when The Internship tanked at the box office. The movie paired Vince Vaugh and Owen Wilson, in similar roles to their Wedding Crashers hit in 2005. Instead of weddings, though, Google was both the backdrop and underlying ethos of the film. What could go wrong?

Audiences not showing up is what went wrong. It was almost as if the fawning era when tech bloggers would obsess about minutia like the animation banner on the Google page had officially ended.

Then came the expensive failure of Google+. It launched in 2012, trumpeted as the new social media player in a not-so-crowded field. Now it’s basically dead, being slowly dismembered into several manageable pieces like Photos and Hangouts. One of the main architects of Google+ (and the inventor of the hashtag), Chris Messina, even told CNN plainly: “I f–ed up. So has Google.”

Whoa! That’s Google you’re talking about, Mr. Hashtag! Yes, the company dared put out Facebook Lite, but they’re THE search engine.

It doesn’t matter. As Forbes explained, Google listened more to its engineers than its customers, moved away from its search engine capabilities, and copied other social media companies instead attempting innovation.

We’re not done, though. The disaster that is Google Glass came at the heels of Google+. As a matter of fact, both tripped over each other in attention of press mockery.

As we reported, what was meant to be the official start of the wearable tech era became one of the worst market disasters in history. Google skipped sensible beta testing and ignored public sentiments (as with Google+). This is a bit odd for a company whose mission statement is to “organize the world’s information.”

Google Glass was unceremoniously killed last year, although there are rumblings of a Frankenstein resurrection. Let’s see.

It hasn’t gotten better for Google in 2015, especially in the last month. A new study exposes some very bad practices by the search giant (the study was suspiciously sponsored by Yelp, but that’s fierce tech competition for you). The research claims that Google ranks higher its own services and products in search listings. Sure, Google is a private company in the business of making dough; however, it has claimed time and time again that its algorithms are completely unbiased.

The damaging study doesn’t mean that people will flock to Bing (God forbid). Yet, this type of news could bolster Europe’s antitrust case against the search giant, which would be disastrous. But this is Google, right? It’s the near-perfect entity that, according to Fortune, is the best company in America to work for. These are mere burps, right?

No, the news gets worse…actually disgusting. Just last month, Google’s image recognition software—employed in its Google Photos application with auto-tagging—mislabeled a photograph of an African American couple. It labeled them “gorillas.”

Google apologized for the gaffe. Moreover, many in the industry remarked that Flickr’s auto-tagging system had done the same—including mislabeling concentration camps as “jungle gyms” and people of various races as “apes.”

That’s the point, though. Flickr is owned by Yahoo, and we know where Yahoo has been headed to for a long time. Is Google on the same path?

It seems so. Again, Google is in trouble.

Bloomberg technology columnist Katie Benner agrees. In a column, she explains the numbers pointing to the fall from grace of Google that include:

Missteps in trends (e.g., Google Glass and Google+).
Underperforming stocks.
A falling share of the U.S. search market, down to 75% in 2014 from 80% in 2013 (and remember, Europe is ready to break them up).
Unhappy investors.
Unable to made headway in foreign markets like China or Russia.

Benner points out a simple but interest axiom on the foibles and fortunes of Google, and it’s not hubris as some might think from reading this article.

You see, when a company reaches a “too big to fail” size it can’t help but begin to fail. Regardless of its altruistic core mission and nimble business attitude, a suddenly-enormous company will begin to fossilize under the pressure of its own density. As Benner says:

Google is a 55,000-person behemoth, and it’s nearly impossible for any company to move quickly and creatively at that size. Among tech giants, only Apple has managed to innovate after becoming so big. Hewlett Packard? Nope. IBM? No way.

Benner draws a comparison of Google to another company that once appeared it could do no wrong and possessed that tech Midas touch:

The Google of 2015 is not unlike the early 2000s Microsoft – a hugely profitable company that is having a hard time innovating around its core product. Unless something is done, it will likely go through spasms of flailing and discontent that will be familiar to longtime veterans of the Redmond, Washington software giant.

Ironically, it was Google that helped begin the erosion of Microsoft when it came into the scene. A decade ago, consumers gradually began to divorce a PC-centric world for internet and cloud-based territories. But again, Microsoft’s large size impeded it from moving with the times, and that gave the universe the widely-detested Windows 8.

Obviously, Google isn’t going to vanish. The question is whether it can do anything not to relegate itself into a cyber Jurassic World? Can it avoid being just another corporate dinosaur to amuse consumers instead of inspiring them, much in the same way that happened to Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, and others? Or can it find its inner innovator and remain fresh like Apple or Facebook?

Benner claims that Google will never regain its innovative spirit. Nevertheless, it can invest in buying smaller companies that have an innovative spirit (like it did with YouTube; or as Facebook did with Instagram). Google could buy Snapchat or Pinterest, again both shocking and pleasing the world. Then again, Microsoft bought Skype and not much came from it…

Perhaps there is some pioneering spark left in Google. It recently started publicizing the accidents of its self-driving cars. That is one big step for transparency, although it might end up being a step backward for public relations once the numbers are crunched by Neo-Luddites out there.

In the end, transparency and investing in creativity might be Google’s best and only choices. At least these moves would give it press beyond fiascos like Google Glass, bigoted photo tagging, or bad Hollywood movies.

And if this article suddenly disappears from search engine rankings, come look for me at the Yelp boards…

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