Google's artificial boundaries

By: Rob Corbidge, 29 February 2024

Google CEO Sundar Pichai

Company culture has to come from the top, so does Google's latest mistake indicate something is rotten in Mountain View?

It emerged this week that Meta and Google's share of the US advertising market is actually in decline. Their combined share of US ad dollars has gone from a peak of 75.7% in 2021 to a predicted 72.8% this year, according to data published in the UK Press Gazette from WARC .

The same Press Gazette report says that according to Insider Intelligence, Google’s online advertising market share in the UK (excluding YouTube) will decline from 38.3% in 2022 to a predicted 34.3% this year. This gives the Big G/Meta duopoly a combined UK digital advertising market share of around 60.6%.

Now, before I get accused of hopeless optimism, the data above reads to me as if the entity that has been strangling the industry I love has slightly reduced the pressure on one finger on the hand that is around our collective commercial throat.

Yet something is changing, even if indications are that increased ad spend is to going to retail advertising, such as Amazon.

We've also seen a major tech stumble this week. One which indicates Google may well have an issue with company culture, as its new Gemini AI produced some utterly bizarre answers, pushed unwanted ethical views, and had an image function that produced ahistorical imagery pretty much guaranteed to offend everyone, wherever they sit on the political spectrum.

It had been supposed that Google was being cautious with AI, feeling it had a brand to protect and not wishing to foist some half-built, tested-on-a-Friday-afternoon AI application out of the door and into the hands of users simply in order to react to the rise of OpenAI. Surely it would spend the time to make something measurably better, built from superior datasets, able to provide reliable answers and not prone to AI hallucination. Because it's often better not to be first with tech, right?

No. Somehow Google shipped Gemini without someone raising a flag that anyone in power paid attention to. The fact it happened indicates Google has an issue of culture. In the heat and light of the Gemini fiasco, Google has muttered about "improving guardrails" on the application. Yet the guardrails they need are quite possibly internal check barriers, not system barriers.

"We’ll be driving a clear set of actions, including structural changes, updated product guidelines, improved launch processes, robust evals and red-teaming, and technical recommendations" according to Google CEO Sundar Pichai as he explained the steps that would be taken following the AI debacle.

For a business with enough money to buy Saturn and turn it into a gaseous amusement park, it might be asked why such basic procedures weren't already in place to stop Gemini shipping.

A good company culture can be one of the fundamentals that turns a business into a mission for motivated employees, and give the kind of competitive edge an entire army of management consultants couldn't alchemize. 

Google had once been a benchmark for creating such a culture, motivating people from top to bottom with an idea that Google is different, that it has a mission. If you're a "Googler", then you are something special and exceptional and even if a person exits Google, many of them retain that sheen of successful expectation working for the world's leading tech company has given them. 

Many of us have seen the lengths people in tech will go to connect themselves with Google, with even the most fleeting of associations being seen as worthy of sitting at the top of their resume.

This aura of power and purpose is receding rapidly. 

Despite his apology and attempt at explanation one has to consider Sundar Pichai's position to be extremely vulnerable right now. 

He's doesn't look any more like the right man to dig them out of the mess they are in, and clearly there are aspects of the business he oversees that he doesn't actually understand. 

But I'm not writing an investment note here, and if Google keeps Pichai in place to oversee yet more unexpected corporate FUBARs, then... good. A diminished, less confident Google has to be good for publishing. They might even need some friends.