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Wrong question but interesting answers
on 28 October 2010
The title of Jeff Jarvis's What Would Google Do? book is a deliberate echo of the American phrase, "What would Jesus do?" Whilst for Christians asking what Jesus would do in particular situations makes sense, does Google have a similar role of authority over everyone's business lives for Jeff Jarvis's question to make sense?
At first, it may appear that the answer is obvious. Google is hugely successful. Google is very different from many companies that have gone before. Lots of firms talk about wanting to be the next Google. Google makes lots of money. Google has lots of users. And so on. So surely trying to learn from Google makes sense?
But probe into that question more deeply and the situation is rather more complicated.
First, there's the traditional outlier issue. Google is unusually large and profitable. So is it a rare exception from which the rest of us therefore cannot learn that much or is it really the path-breaker for the rest of us to follow?
Second, there's the question of permanence. There have been many firms who have briefly been top of the pile, widely admired and the focus of numerous books telling people how to be like them. In the computing and internet area, there have been several waves with the previous dominant companies usually disappearing from the scene. Microsoft is highly unusual in having stayed on top for so long. IBM and Apple both soared and crashed and soared again. All three in their different ways have stood the test of time, whilst Google is sitll a relative newbie. So if you want to learn lessons for the future, why not turn to Microsoft, IBM and Apple instead or at least in addition to Google?
Therein lie both the best and the most frustrating aspects of Jeff Jarvis's book. To his credit, the book acknowledges the existence of firms such as Apple which are highly successful and don't follow the Google route. As Jarvis himself says of Apple:
"Apple flouts Jarvis' First Law. Hand over control to the customer? You must be joking. Steve Jobs controls all ... Apple is the opposite of collaborative ... The company could not be more one-way and less transparent."
And so on. Many books full of breathless excitement about the future overlook even the really obvious counter examples. To Jarvis' credit he doesn't, but what makes the book frustrating it that he both only considers a very narrow range of exceptions and then also largely dismisses them as one-off exceptions. Look again though at the Fortune 500. Those "exceptions" are actually dominant when it comes to running successful large businesses. It is Google that is much more the exception.
He himself admits - in an eminently likable way - that it's not all about doing things like Google:
"I confess: I'm a hypocrite. If I had followed my own rules - if I had eaten my own dog food - you wouldn't be reading this book right now, at least not as a book. You'd be reading it online, for free, having discovered it via links and search. You'd be able to correct me, and I'd be able to update this book with the latest amazing stats about Google ... But I did have to make money from a publisher's advance. That is why you are reading this as a book. Sorry."
Where the book works best is where Jeff Jarvis makes points that aren't just followed by Google, but by an increasing number of other large firms, as with the idea of thinking distributed: get your content or your service out in front of people in as many different places and formats and via as many different routes as possible. It's not just Google whose audience is far more than simply the people who come to the main website.
Google is also rather less saintly that Jarvis paints it. He's lucky that his experience of Google is that, "Its stuff just works. I rarely hear people complain about them". Take a look at the streams of complaint online from people who have had problem with Google's services such as Blogger and been unable to get a response and you will see that the story is much more mixed.
The book has many good points, including the first hand account of how Jeff Jarvis fell out with Dell, laid into them online and so triggered one of the most frequently quoted case studies as the incident revolutionised Dell's approach to online engagement. Not bad at all for one unhappy customer.
It also picks up many persuasive examples of how the Google way of doing things could change other sectors, such as the restaurant one. Imagine a restaurant where on the menu you could see what other diners though of different dishes and which bottles of wine they chose to go with the main course you're going to have. Imagine the immediate benefits for the restaurant in terms of knowing which dishes work and which don't, and the attraction for diners of a richer - but useful - set of information. Then get more adventurous and imagine letting people suggest changes to the recipes and have social networks develop amongst diners to keep them coming back.
So whilst I'm dubious about the underlying premise of the book, there are plenty of individual examples and colour in to make What Would Google Do? a lively read likely to stimulate many ideas.