Google [X]

Recall our thesis from last time:

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

This time, we are going to discuss a hunch I have about Google: I believe Google [X], typically assumed to be an R&D branch of Google known for taking “moonshots,”  is really just a marketing company.

This doesn’t really sound like a disagreeable truth; after all, regular Google (and/or its parent, Alphabet) is a marketing company.

Of late, Google [X] mostly shows up in the news for its advances in self-driving cars. The self-driving car is a concept I’ve expressed love for repeatedly. (See: 1 2 3 4.) In fact, it’s in the news enough that I don’t even think “the self-driving car is world-changing” would qualify for a valid response to the important, controversial question anymore because too many people seem to agree with it.

We won’t know the market success of Google’s self-driving car for a fairly long time. It will probably take years for the Google [X] automobile to make meaningful headway in adoption, despite the glowingly positive opinions we already have on self-driving cars’ safety, convenience, etc.

Here’s some things we do know.

  1. Google [X] is founded on the idea of “moonshots.” Ideas that are potentially huge, but very likely to fail.
  2. Google [X] doesn’t really have a track record of success. Google Glass got to market in 2013, and flopped out of it within the year.
  3. Google in general doesn’t really have a good track record with hardware. Despite the brilliance of Android, Google doesn’t really manufacture its own phones. Google makes Chromebooks and Chromecast, which by all accounts seem to work great, but neither seems to have the ubiquity or fervent fanbase of products by, say, Apple.
  4. The person in charge of Google [X] is a guy named Astro Teller. This is by far the weakest argument of the four, but still… He’s literally an “outer space predictor.” You’d choke on your popcorn if a movie character in such a position had such a name.

All of these leave the door wide open for failure.

For now, the biggest success of the self-driving car is its newsworthiness. You can’t buy a Google self-driving car yet; however, you sure can read about it. 82.8 million search results as of January 2016.

And that newsworthiness is quite valuable.

For example:

  • It’s inspired an untold favorable views of articles and content saying how great Google is (basically, ads for Google)
  • It’s inspired an untold number of people to search with Google to read more about the subject (and each query is peppered with ads by Google)
  • The sooner we have self-driving cars, the sooner we can collect all the data from self-driving cars (which means better targeting for ads by Google)

This section alone probably more than covers the price of the lab and the staff.

More interesting (albeit harder to accurately quantify) are the HR implications:

  • It’s inspired an untold number of quirky Google employees to be excited about their menial work refining ad impression algorithms at a monolithic gargantuan company
  • It’s inspired an untold number of quirky prospective employees to fill out job applications at Google instead of at startups and elsewhere

Those would be very, very valuable for Google, and prove very strong on return on investment for Google [X] the marketing company.

Most interesting of all: Suppose Larry & Sergey benevolently cared about about things beyond Google’s bottom line:

  • It’s inspired maybe a dozen companies to very quickly get very, very serious about an issue that can affect billions of lives. Some companies, like Uber, Lyft, and Tesla, are quite forward-thinking and probably would have gotten there sooner or later. Others, like Ford and GM, tend otherwise to move at glacial speeds — yet on this issue find themselves at the bleeding edge of the industry

This bullet point, in my opinion, is nearly unbelievable. One of the biggest marketing successes of our generation. If Larry & Sergey cared about the long-term well-being of humanity, then spending millions on Google [X] the marketing company has inspired the spending of billions (trillions?) across the globe towards improving (and saving from outright destruction!) millions annually.

When’s the last time you heard of a marketing campaign that led to the market spending of 10x to 1000x what the campaign cost to run?

I bet the Google self-driving car never becomes the market leader. It’s possible it’s not even the first to market for public purchase. It’s even possible that it never makes the market at all.

I bet Google rolls back into a software partner role in its alliance with Ford. I bet Google distributes its software for cars the same way it distributes its software for phones.

I bet Google [X] continues to churn out dreams for as long as news outlets are willing to write about them, and as long as eager college graduates are willing to cite them as inspiration in their job applications. (I’d argue that under these terms, Google Glass — with 421 million search results itself — was actually also, counterintuitively, a success.)

These bets are kind of scary to make, since if you follow tech news, it seems clear that Google is thousands of miles (literally!) ahead of the pack. So maybe this idea will make me look and feel stupid a few years from now. Or maybe by then Google will have already sent droids to assassinate me — they certainly shouldn’t have a problem hunting me down given what they must know from my search, email, phone, and maps habits.

Anyway, my answer this time around:

Most people think Google’s self-driving car will be a market success. The truth is that success in the market is irrelevant — the car (and Google [X] itself) is a success simply for the attention it brings to Google.

This is a bigger truth than just an observation about Google: It’s an important truth because it affects how we see and consume news. It’s important to understand biases, and exercise careful thought and skepticism. Marketing in 2016 goes way, waayyy beyond banner ads, TV spots, and even the sponsored content pieces we all love to loathe.

It’s also, maybe a bit less cynically, an observation about business, and how the best businesses understand to build positive feedback loops across all of their initiatives. (You think Marvel makes movies? Hell no. Marvel makes 2.5-hour long commercials to sell action figures. You just happen to watch those commercials in a movie theater.)

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