In the year since Larry Page took over as Google CEO, the company co-founder has streamlined management ranks, jettisoned non-essential product lines, and worked to increase Google’s competitive metabolism with “the passion and soul of a startup.” But Page’s first year has also been pockmarked by privacy stumbles and continuing challenges confronting Facebook in the increasingly crucial social networking space. Here’s a first-year assessment of Page’s performance ahead of the company’s earnings report on Thursday.
Web Search: Google continues to be the undisputed web search leader, which is a testament to the quality of its product in a market where there is little barrier for users to switch services. Google’s search market share hit 66.4% in February, according to comScore, the highest level in over one year. Google’s search advertising revenue makes up the vast majority of the $38 billion in sales the company reported for 2011. This is the company’s golden goose, and as long as Google can maintain its market dominance, it will continue to print profits, which can then be funneled into the company’s other initiatives.
But Google’s search dominance poses risks. Antitrust regulators from the U.S. to Europe are looking at whether Google has abused its search market power to drive users to its other products. Google maintains that the search market remains very competitive and points out that there’s little holding users back from switching to a rival product like Microsoft’s Bing, which has waged an aggressive marketing campaign. And ironically, Facebook’s impending move to create a search product of its own may actually help Google in the short run, by bolstering its argument that users have other options. For now, Google’s core product remains dominant, and antitrust concerns notwithstanding, it will continue to power the company’s revenue for the foreseeable future. Grade: A-
Social Networking: If Page could go back in time and address one shortcoming in Google’s vision and strategy, it would surely be the company’s failure to mount a credible challenge to Facebook. As Google’s core search revenue grew like wildfire in the late-2000′s, it failed to keep an eye on its social flank. Now, Facebook is the undisputed leader in social networking, with over 850 million users who show little inclination to switch to a new alternative. “I think we probably missed more of the people part of than we should have,” Page told Businessweek recently.
Google belatedly realized that it missed the social revolution, but its efforts to catch up have mostly failed to catch on with the mainstream online public. The company’s Buzz product launch was a privacy debacle. And it’s only been in the last year, under Page’s leadership, that Google has made social networking a truly top priority, with Google+. The company claims that over 100 million users are “active” on the platform, but that figure is a matter of dispute because Google+ has been integrated with so many of Google’s products. In any case, there’s no question that Facebook remains the dominant social platform, and that Google’s social efforts to date have been underwhelming. Grade: D
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Mobile: In terms of market penetration, Google’s mobile operating system Android has been a stunning success. Every day, over 850,000 Android devices made by 55 manufacturers on over 300 wireless carriers are activated, Page wrote in his recent CEO update. In a major milestone, Android had just over 50% share of the smartphone market in February, a staggering achievement for a platform that is just three-and-a-half years old. As computing increasingly moves off the desktop and onto mobile devices, Android’s reach has put Google in a great position.
But in its quest for mobile growth, Google has sacrificed revenue. Its strategy is diametrically opposed to Apple, which maintains an end-to-end, software-to-hardware grip on all aspects of the iPhone. Google, by contrast, has licensed the Android OS to dozens of hardware-makers, which keep the lion’s share of revenue. As a result, Android generates only $1.70 per device for Google every year, compared to the iPhone, which generates a whopping $650 per device for Apple, according to estimates by mobile analyst Horace Dediu. For now, Google seems comfortable with this trade-off, because Android represents a bulwark in the mobile market against the Apple juggernaut, and that was Google’s strategy in the first place. It’s too early to assess Google’s $12.5 billion purchase of Motorola Mobility, a deal that hasn’t even closed yet, but analysts will be watching closely to see if it can boost Google’s revenue per device. On the tablet front, Google has been all but missing in action as Apple’s iPad has jumped out to a commanding early lead. So far, Android-based tablets have yet to make a splash — a situation Google no doubt hopes to rectify by the end of the year. Grade: B+
Stock Price: A huge part of every CEO’s responsibility is driving value for shareholders. On this score, Page’s record is mixed. Just about everyone agrees that the explosive stock price growth that characterized Google’s early years is a thing of the past. Prior to the recession and subsequent stock market crash, Google’s share price had increased by 600% in the four years since it went public at $85 in August 2004. Over the last year, Google shares have increased 10% — about the same as the tech-heavy Nasdaq index — and about 25% from their low in June of 2011. Most Wall Street analysts continue to be bullish on the company’s stock, with many issuing price targets above $700. For investors looking for a solid way to capitalize on the shift in ad spending from offline to online, Google remains a very good investment. The challenge for Page will be boosting the company’s non-core-desktop-search revenue, whether it be mobile, local advertising, or social networking, in order to power the stock upward. Grade: B
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“Evil” Factor: If there’s one thing that has differentiated Google’s corporate culture from other firms, it’s the “Don’t be evil” code — a mantra that dates back to the company’s earliest days. “We have always wanted Google to be a company that is deserving of great love,” Page wrote in his 2012 CEO update. “But we recognize this is an ambitious goal because most large companies are not well-loved, or even seemingly set up with that in mind.” Like many entrepreneurs of their generation, Page and co-founder Sergey Brin have always connected their business with a positive social mission.
But “Don’t be evil” has never meant that every single decision the company makes would adhere to some Mother Teresa-standard of purity. At the most basic level, it means don’t be a bad actor, a bad citizen. So how is Google doing? Again, it’s a mixed bag. A series of mistakes over the last several months have undermined the company’s credo, starting with the Search Plus Your World integration, which demoted results from Facebook and Twitter, fueling monopolist charges. Then came reports that Google was secretly tracking people using Apple’s Safari web browser, in contravention of user preferences. Not good. The company’s most recent privacy overhaul was assailed as opaque and confusing. And of course, there was $500 million Google had to pay to avoid Justice Department prosecution for knowingly accepting illegal ads for Canadian online pharmacies.
So is Google evil? In truth, that question is almost beside the point. Realistically, the most important thing now is whether Google is perceived as being evil, and on that front the company’s reputation remains strong: Google is the second most admired company in America, according to Fortune‘s annual survey. Of course, Google is a business, not a charity, and the company’s ultimate goal is “long-term growth in revenue and absolute profit,” according to Page. Still, if the company wants to avoid the “evil” label it claims to abhor, than it would be well-advised to avoid some of the more egregious missteps of the last year. Grade: B-
Conclusion: Given how fast the the Internet is evolving, it’s not surprising that Page’s top priority has been to increase Google metabolism and sharpen its focus. But try as he might, cultivating a “startup” mentality at a corporate giant with over 30,000 employees is easier said than done. Still, over 15 years after its founding, Google is lucky to have the services of Page and Brin (who now is in charge of special projects, like the company’s forthcoming augmented reality glasses). Google’s culture has always been unique, and there are no better symbols of that culture than the quirky, brilliant, idealistic pair who launched the company from a Stanford dorm room. If anyone can inspire the troops, it’s the Google guys.
For Page, the challenge is to continue to re-tune the company to compete and thrive for the next decade. Google is well positioned on the mobile front, but needs to emerge with a credible Android-based rival to the iPad. And Page must continue to confront Facebook by improving Google’s social offering. Rocky as it’s been, you have to give Page credit for moving aggressively here — now the company has to redouble its efforts. Page has done an admirable job of consolidating Google’s position and stripping away distractions. The company’s vision has been re-sharpened and its goals have been identified. Now, as they say in Silicon Valley, it’s time to execute. Overall grade: B