Google’s Mission: Right or Wrong?

August 30, 2011

In my last post, Are People Buying What You’re Selling? I discussed mission statements and vision statements. The act of creating these statements – good ones – forces you to think deeply about your business, capturing the essence of why people should do business with you and why they should come to work for you.

These should be crafted with a long-term view, but are there times when that view should be trashed, or at least modified? Let’s look at a high-profile, public company: Google.

Google’s mission is to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

As the world’s leading search engine, I would say that they’ve certainly succeeded on this front. But Google has a problem. Steve Denning recently wrote about this in a two-part article urging: Google: Rethink Your Mission! (And Part 2: Google+)

Steve gives high marks for Google’s mission statement, calling it “a model of clarity and crispness.” The problem for Google, Steve says, is that they have the wrong mission. In assessing Google, Steve feels that Google’s mission statement is one about building a “gigantic library.” And libraries, he says, “have never been popular or profitable.”

Steve feels that Google mission misses another fundamental in delighting the customer: “… the deeper problem with Google’s mission statement is not that it is unrealistic (which it is) but rather that it is focused on a thing. It is about ‘organizing information’ rather than being about people for whom the information is being organized and how they would use it and why.”

I don’t believe that Google’s mission is wrong, but I’m disagreeing with Steve, either! He is correct that Google's mission does point at a thing. What is missing is a formal vision statement that articulates Google’s values. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives tells us that from the start Google has been – and continues to be – all about providing fast, high-quality search results for the user.

In order to provide their lightning fast search, Google does need to organize a universe of information. Google’s mission supports their values – which are all about people and their experience with Google’s search capabilities. The combination of the two is how Google positioned itself to make a lucrative living. Take either one way, and Google has problems with its core business!

Steve readily acknowledges the nature of Google's business, but associates it with Google's mission and not Google's underlying values, observing that, “Fortunately for Google, its core business doesn’t depend on its mission. Its business depends on helping us find stuff at lightning speed, at the very moment when we want it, without distractions or intrusive advertising. It is clean. It is neat. It is elegant.”

Steve is correct, however, Google's mission is wrong – for some of the businesses that they are trying to get into.

Google has certainly tested the waters on many fronts, with mixed success. Blogger is a success. When I s started blogging, I chose Google’s Blogger platform (and I’m still using it) because Google made it very easy for a first-time blogger like me to get up and running. I’ll confess that I was also curious about using Google’s tools…

Other ventures have been less than successful for Google for reasons that Steve and others have pointed out. Google+ is likely to fall into the “it didn’t work out” category because:

Google is going head-to-head with established competitor in Facebook. As the books, Blue Ocean Strategy and The Innovator’s Solution point out, incumbents always win these battles. Does Google+ allow people to do something easier and less expensively than is possible right now? Does it serve a market that until now has not been served? Why is anyone going to switch from Facebook to Google+?

Google’s core values are being applied like a hammer. (And when you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail.) There is a difference between a great search experience and a great social media experience. Mike Elgan, quoted in Google's User Happiness Problem, says, "People prefer Facebook to Google because Facebook is a place they can go to be social. With Google there is no 'place.' There is no party. Google's approach to social isn't fun."

What should Google do?

As Google looks to new ventures, it needs to think deeply about the customer experience and what customers value without looking through the narrow lens that brought Google to where it is today in search. Google needs to ask itself what would delight the customer in context with whatever application/capability they are striving to deliver. In doing so, Google will likely need to vary the application of some of its values.

Getting back to the question I asked at the beginning of this post, I don't believe that it would be wise for Google to abandon its core business or mission. Maybe, just maybe, Google needs to be two businesses, not one.

Google has the option of retaining and expanding the core business with sustaining innovations while building a new business with a new mindset, avoiding taking on established competitors in direct, head-to-head competition.

In doing so, I wouldn't rule out the possibility of Google finding ways to leverage their core business in the social realm, providing new, unique, differentiating capabilities. The key is to keep an open mind about what delighting the customer means in context with each application. The people running Google are smart enough to realize that one size doesn't fit all.

What do you think? Is Google's mission wrong? Will Google+ succeed? Should Google build a separate business with a new and different vision and mission?