Is something wrong with Google?

February 17, 2011: 1:20 PM ET

It seems the company's best days are behind it, or that Facebook is eating its lunch. But maybe Google is so far ahead of the game that we're the ones who need to catch up.

By Kevin Kelleher, contributor

Google sign

What is going on with Google? Sure, today President Obama will be meeting with Eric Schmidt at a tech executive meet-up in Silicon Valley, but he almost seems an also-ran compared to the attention focused on two other confirmed attendees, Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs and Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg. In fact, each month, it looks more like this is Facebook's world -- the world of the social web -- and Google is just growing irrelevant inside it. (Just today, Google made an announcement that it would do a better job adding social data to its search product, essentially admitting that's what users want from it.) Search, in fact, may be broken, as cunning SEO spammers outwit Google's once-formidable algorithms. Each new feature the company rolls out seems like another quaint addition to its museum of unmonetized innovations.

It almost looks like Google's (GOOG) best years are behind it only 12 years after its founding. The stock has moved sideways for the last three years. Top talent is defecting Google for Facebook, with some citing its "unwieldy" culture. The company has responded by spending more -- 10% raises, across the board -- and plans to hire thousands more. But a rejiggering of the "triumvirate" managing Google for the last decade came across as an acrimonious breakup.

As Google enters a new period with co-founder Larry Page taking over as CEO, it's going to become one of two companies. The first Google is Yahoo (YHOO) redux -- a onetime web giant managed by a founder who thrashes about for solutions to reverse an inevitable decline. The second Google is the company Page and Sergey Brin wanted Google to be all along -- a vast platform powered by artificilal intelligence to organize all the world's information -- which is just getting started.

The first scenario may have more currency right now, but I think we'll start to see the second scenario start to prevail in the next few years. Right now, Google is in a period of short-term chaos with defecting employees and management changes and new rivals like Facebook.

Google's founders have uttered their mantra of organizing the world's information so many times in the past decade it feels like a hollow cliché. But the company has hewed to it to an impressive degree. In an interview in October 2000, Page -- who was Google's CEO at the time -- said, "Basically, artificial intelligence would be the ultimate version of Google. So we have the ultimate search engine that would understand everything on the Web. It would understand exactly what you wanted, and it would give you the right thing. That's obviously artificial intelligence, to be able to answer any question, basically, because almost everything is on the Web, right?"

Back in 2002, Page talked of a search engine "which would understand exactly what you wanted when you typed in a query, and it would give you the exact right thing back." In a 2004 interview with Playboy, Brin spoke of moving beyond search engines "to having the entirety of the world's information as just one of our thoughts." For example, Brin said, you could say into a phone "what you want to search for, and it will be pulled up."

These innovations may have sounded futuristic at the time, but today they are standard features of Google's search engines and its Android ecosystem. By 2006, Brin was dreaming of a technology we now know of as autocomplete, as well as the simultaneous translation of Google Translate and the optical character recognition of Google Goggles. (More AI quotes from Page and Brin can be found here.)

In 2011, search is less central to the web, as it evolves into a more complex, social structure where discovery through your contacts matters as much as search. So if Google were committed to search alone, its future would be limited. The company's failure to offer a popular social network underscores this perception. But when Google imagines artificial intelligence, it's not thinking of a computer that can win on Jeopardy. It's thinking of something at once much broader than social networks but that is assembled piece by piece.

Already, Google's AI features are finding their way into the social web. Follow Finder analyzes your social graph to find new people to follow on Twitter. Google Transliteration lets me send updates to my Japanese speaking friends simply by typing the phonetic words. And Google Translate has improved with great strides recently. It still has bugs, but many translations have a natural, often colloquial feel to them. Here, for example, is Google's translation of the first pages of The Savage Detectives.

Google Labs and Google's blog show a slow, steady production of innovations for search, maps, gmail, apps, Chrome and Android – each by itself too incremental to be game changing, but each a small step towards Google's goal of being an AI platform for everyday devices: Google Body, WalkieTalkie, the Google Art Project, the Ngram Viewer.

Taken as a whole, this network of micro-innovations is broader than what Facebook is offering. But Facebook is winning on several other fronts. Users are spending more online time on Facebook's site, so ad dollars are migrating there as well. Engineering talent is also flowing from Google to Facebook, drawn by its startup culture and promise of pre-IPO options.

Meanwhile, most of the innovations coming out of Google aren't making money. Investors are often impatient with the time Google needs to monetize technologies: Nearly five years after Google bought YouTube, the video site is finally showing a profit. And while mobile ads are covering the costs of developing and maintaining Android, the mobile OS is far from the profit machine that iOS is for Apple.

But Google doesn't need to monetize these new initiatives as long as search continues to deliver growing profits. And in time, Google Body could serve ads for health care, or Maps could include local ads that notify users of nearby bargains. For now, slapping ads on new products would strangle their adoption.

The risk with Google's steady stream of new features is that most will not click with enough consumers. But it's just as likely that people will tire of Facebook's walled garden and migrate over time to a more open, socially-structured web that exists beyond the Facebook empire. That open web is the realm Google has helped us navigate for the past decade through search.

If the AI platform Google is building piecemeal proves to be as helpful in navigating a post-Facebook web as its search engine was before we all joined social networks, then it's future is far from over. It's only now beginning.

Join the Conversation
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.