In Which We Hold Google Accountable To A Core Principle It Seems To Have Abandoned

Eric Schmidt Larry Page Sergey Brin in a Streetview car

In the about section of, there is a list called “10 things we know to be true.

The intro copy reads: “We first wrote these ’10 things’ when Google was just a few years old. From time to time we revisit this list to see if it still holds true. We hope it does—and you can hold us to that.”

The second item on the list is headlined: “It’s best to do one thing really, really well.”

The rest of it:

“We do search. With one of the world’s largest research groups focused exclusively on solving search problems, we know what we do well, and how we could do it better. Through continued iteration on difficult problems, we’ve been able to solve complex issues and provide continuous improvements to a service that already makes finding information a fast and seamless experience for millions of people. Our dedication to improving search helps us apply what we’ve learned to new products, like Gmail and Google Maps. Our hope is to bring the power of search to previously unexplored areas, and to help people access and use even more of the ever-expanding information in their lives.”

Reading that, the obvious question for shareholders, employees and company watchers has to be: do Google’s leaders actually think they are still adhering to this core principle?

At a time when Google is running phone factories in Brazil, funding scripted pilots in Hollywood, pushing self-driving cars on Detroit – all while taking on Facebook with a social network and Apple with its own tablet – it is hard to believe anyone over there seriously thinks the company is working on “one thing.”

But it turns out they do.

Over the past couple days, we’ve been talking to a number of Google executives, and – just like they told us to! – we held them to this core principle, asking if they think the company still believes “it’s best to do one thing really, really well.”

Here is what these Google sources told us.

Google source #1:

We’ve had the same mission. The mission is to organise the world’s information and to make it universally accessible and useful. That’s been the company’s mission and it’s still the company’s mission.

You can look at the different P&Ls [YouTube, Google+, Motorola, Android, Geo and Commerce, etc] and say, “Are they relevant?”

We can start with Android: Is that relevant? Well, think about all the mobile usage that’s going on in the world. If we didn’t have Android, would it be a fair playing ground to be able to search or to do the other things you’re able to do, or to look up your map.

You can look at YouTube and say, people spend so much time online, video is such an important part—look at how much time people spend watching TV. Video is a really important part of Information, like if you wanted to type in a query of “How to tie a bow tie” or “How to do a magic trick,” a video might be the right answer. So that’s been important.

It’s hard to say Maps isn’t important. Think of all the time people look up a direction, or someone was just telling me that—anyway, there are many, many examples of events or parties or things where people are looking up directions; they’re going to Google and they want to know where something’s located. You type in a hotel: it matters whether it’s in a nice neighbourhood or not.

What’s happened is that users have gotten more sophisticated, and the web has really matured. In order to offer our users the best experiences, we offer them more than 10 blue links; they want to know maps, they want to see video, they want to see if their friends liked this search result or not.

So to remain competitive and to offer really demanding Internet users the next generation of the best answers, we need to be in these other businesses to answer those questions as best as we can.

Google source #2:

When we started, a lot of us had resistance to developing an ad product, because we thought of ourselves as a company based primarily on the most sophisticated algorithmic ranking method, Page Rank. When the founders were pushing us into developing an ad product, that was foreign to us.

Obviously it was the right decision. And I think we’ve made that decision several times subsequently, around Gmail, around Maps, around Android, and around YouTube.

When you say a company has to do one thing well, it depends on how you define that one thing. Obviously if you limit it to a specific division or feature, you might be missing out on other parts.

[Google CEO] Larry [Page] has chosen a number of areas that he cares a lot about, and those areas have different users. Some use cases across them are common, and when we see those common use cases, we try to build the infrastructure technology and parts around them.

I think we’re a company that has different use cases [but] they’re all related. It’s entirely possible for us to have a company where, for example, on the YouTube side they are very focused on the video experience for the user, while at the same time they draw from other parts of Google and don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

So what can we conclude from these answers? A few things…

  • Note how neither of the sources brought up Motorola Mobility, the handset/cablebox/communications hardware manufacturer Google bought for $12.5 billion.
  • Google sources are pretty good at making all products seem somehow related to search, but they still sound a little bit in denial.
  • Google should probably just re-write its core principles. Why not? After all, last fall, new-ish CEO Larry Page was pretty open about the idea that Google’s mission was no longer to “organise the world’s information.” He said it was to push technology forward.

So, do you buy what our sources are selling?

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