Google: The thrill is back

January 25, 2012: 11:29 AM ET

Disappointing quarter aside, it's too early to tell whether Google is fundamentally doing better or worse under Larry Page. But the company is more focused, more willing to take risks and -- for the first time in years -- more interesting.

By Kevin Kelleher, contributor

larry_pageFORTUNE -- It may be unfair to grade a work in progress, but in the case of a closely watched company like Google, it's inevitable. In the nine months that Larry Page has served as Google's CEO, he's shown a bold, decisive style that has won the company unexpected success in social, stirred up a number of controversies and earned Page himself a mix of praise and criticism.

And so, tech pundits can't help but turn their thumbs up or down, based on what's happened. The deeper truth isn't so binary. Page has embarked on a course of management-by-risk familiar to startups but much rarer in companies with 12-digit valuations. The question isn't what has Page done, it's where he's pushing Google (GOOG).

In April 2011, Page took the reins from Eric Schmidt, who had made strategic decisions as part of a triumvirate including Page and co-founder Sergey Brin. By some important measures, Page has already proven himself a strong leader, winning a 97% approval rating from Glassdoor.com (Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg saw his rating fall to 89% from last year's 96%). And for an unprecedented third year, Google was named the best company to work for.

Yet Page may need some more time to win over investors. Last week, after the company delivered an earnings report that fell significantly short of the Street's expectations, the stock dropped as much as 10%. The disappointing quarter followed two previous quarters where earnings were much stronger than expected.

Page, who's famously declared that Google's mission is to organize all the world's information, takes a long-term view of the company's success. But he also understand that getting there means wasting no time in taking dramatic steps to prepare for it. So he launched a swift reorganization of the company to sharpen its focus, made an unorthodox purchase of a mobile-device manufacturer and reorganized many of Google's sprawling sites and features around a brand new product, Google+.

It will take a while to judge clearly whether these moves were smart or rash. But hasn't slowed the dishing out of praise and criticism. Some declared Page CEO of the Year after less than nine months on the job; others scoffed at that premature laurel. Some saw Google+ as proof that Google can compete in social media, others as a bane for investors. And nobody -- maybe not even Page himself--– knew what to make of the $12.5 billion purchase of Motorola Mobility.

Overall, a look at the headlines that Google made during Page's first months show a mix of good news and bad. Among the bad: In June, the company said the Federal Trade Commission was investigating its dominance in the search market. Two months later, it paid $500 million to settle a separate investigation into online-pharmacies buying AdWords. The company fended off a hacking attack directed by China and lost out on the bidding for Nortel's patent portfolio. And relations with movie and music studios grew tense as Google emerged as a vocal opponent of the SOPA bill.

Many of these events are the result of actions that predate Page's reappointment as CEO. Other, more positive developments bear the marks of his leadership: The four-month reorganization aimed at enhancing engineering productivity, the relatively smooth launch of Google+ (which now has 90 million members), the streamlined look of its home page and products like Gmail, the spread of Android -- now running on 250 million devices -- and Chrome with a browser market share, at 26%, that eclipses Firefox.

Given that mix of positives and negatives, it's too early to declare whether Google is better off or worse off under Page. Using the stock as a proxy isn't reliable: It's wavered between $470 and $670 a share, but overall is little changed from Page's first day.

What's clear, however, is Google is different under Page. It's more focused in its overarching strategy, in its slimmed-down offerings and in its managerial voice. It's is more willing to embrace risk, evident in the Motorola deal and the aggressive bets on Google+. Google has always been willing to take some strong stands but these are, on the one hand, increasingly balanced with practical approaches -- like the back-and-forth negotiations with content giants and the quiet push to return to China. Yet on the other hand, its more prone to controversy - like the nym wars surrounding Google+, or the recent introduction of Google+ into search results -- which now looks like a brewing controversy.

The big bets Page is placing may pay off, or they may set Google back. But Google is at least acting as if it understands all too well that it must either take bold chances now or face a slow, endless Yahoo-like (YHOO) death. In the tech world, giants get sidelined by not taking chances. Tech giants that answer to shareholders like to pretend otherwise, but -- just like any startup -- they live or die by risking failure.

In a way, over the past year, Google has started acting more like a startup than it has in years and more like a startup than most companies its size. In that way, Google under Page isn't unlike like Apple (AAPL) under Steve Jobs and Amazon (AMZN) under Jeff Bezos -- two companies that also took big risks when they fit into the strong vision of a smart, intuitive leader.

Will Page's intelligence and intuition keep Google at the vanguard of innovation? Or will his his risk be remembered as bold but unsuccessful bets on where the internet is heading? One thing about the internet, it's always moved in unpredictable ways. No one can say for sure where Google is heading. But under Larry Page, it's going to be an interesting ride.

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