Is Larry Page asleep at the wheel?

Larry Page GoogleAPLarry Page

In the New York Times this week, columnist Farhad Manjoo argues that Google’s era of dominance may be coming to a close.

Here’s his argument:

Growth in Google’s primary business, search advertising, has flattened out at about 20 per cent a year for the last few years. The company’s financial results have failed to meet consensus analysts’ expectations for five straight quarters. And its stock price has fallen 8 per cent over the last year.

Although Google has spent considerable resources inventing technologies for the future, it has failed to turn many of its innovations into new moneymakers. About 90 per cent of Google’s revenue is from ads, most of that on its search engine.

But as smartphones eclipse laptop and desktop computers to become the planet’s most important computing devices, the digital ad business is rapidly changing. Facebook, Google’s archrival for advertising dollars, has been quick to profit from the shift.

Google’s place in the future is less clear.

Manjoo and I do a weekly podcast. On this week’s podcast we spent some time talking about his column, and the state of Google. (We also talked about Tesla, and new e-commerce company Jet.)

I’m not entirely certain I agree with Manjoo about Google. I think the company is pretty strong, and loaded with smart people that are well aware of the challenges they face.

However, if there’s one thing that gives me pause, it’s CEO Larry Page.

Page is a brilliant visionary leader. He invented the search business. He bought YouTube, and he bought Android. All of those are incredible businesses.

But lately, Page has focused his energy on really big picture stuff like self-driving cars, curing death, and so on.

While he focuses on the big picture, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook has focused on smaller picture stuff. That’s led to him buy Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus Rift, and trying, but failing to buy Snapchat.

Zuckerberg now has a fantastic portfolio of apps that will have close to a billion users each. All of these apps are perfect for the next wave of ad dollars. These ads can do highly quality, well-target brand advertising in their streams of content.

Facebook and its apps are sucking up all the online ad dollars. Google’s search business remains robust, but it’s entirely possible Facebook is going to go flying past it.

The question I keep asking people is whether or not Larry Page cares. Does he think Instagram and WhatsApp are threats to Google? Does he care about the state of online advertising? Or is it too prosaic a concern? Would he rather talk about building a car that drives itself?

Any time Page speaks in public, he talks about big ideas. Then again, that’s probably because people would fall asleep if he started talking about the challenges of programmatic video ad buying. He may also avoid talking about the nuts and bolts of his business because he doesn’t want his rivals to know what he’s truly thinking.

Big picture stuff is great, and it’s about advancing society, so it’s good for other people to copy Google. Small picture stuff like how Google makes money is not something Page wants his rivals copying.

So, all this hand wringing may be for naught. Still! It’s a fun debate to kick around. We talk about it towards the end of the podcast.

You can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes here. Or just look for it in your favourite podcast app under “Jay and Farhad”. Here’s an RSS link to the show. We use SoundCloud as a host, so you can listen to the show over there, too.

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