Google Just Isn’t Very Good

I was reminded again today of the number of smart people that have been swallowed up by Google. Google seems to have hired everyone in San Jose, according to’s new job numbers. They have offices in New York, and I hear they are opening new offices in Philadelphia and Boston. They seem to be willing to acquire entire companies just to get their employees.

The big question is, what are they all doing? The stock market seems to think that they are secretly working on The Next Big Thing. Based on Google stock price, investors expect that any day now we will see a beta of “Just click here and our AJAX-enabled Web 2.0 service will cure your cancer.” That isn’t too far from the truth though. Google seems to be adopting a similar model to big pharma. They are doing drug discovery. But what they are trying to discover is the next big idea.

However, much like big pharma, they are failing. A large number of researchers packed into a company, with too many PhDs, is unable to justify it’s cost. Sure, Google will produce neat new things. They’ve produced several. But when you consider that they employ thousands of people, several good ideas just isn’t cutting it. But much like big pharma, Google has enough money to decide that next year they need 30% more innovation, and hire 30% more PhDs. Of course, that isn’t going to work. Each new good idea is going to cost Google more and more money.

Most good drugs in the pharmaceutical industry come from startups. A biotech startup gets together a few good people who believe in an idea, does the preliminary implementation, and gets it through a few rounds of trials to show that it works. If it does work, a big company comes in, buys the idea, and applies their knowledge of scalability and marketing to finish the idea.

That is exactly what Yahoo is doing with Web 2.0 companies. They are letting startups be the proving ground for new ideas, letting them put the ideas through human trials, and then buying up the good ones. And since there is no FDA driving up costs, the companies (and their ideas) come cheap. Order of $10 million a pop. For $10 million, how many PhD-years can Google buy? Not enough.


  1. Nathan Williams says:

    There’s something to this, but there’s also something to the idea that Google is investing in the infrastructure and tools needed to produce large-scale web projects (GFS just being the most-frequently-cited example I see). This implies that there’s value to scale, since a startup wouldn’t have those tools to rely on, and would have to invest a lot more to get to that point. On the other hand, it’s easy to think that Google is well past the ideal tradeoff and is in the land of diminishing returns.

  2. a m i t t a i says:

    Google is presenting itself to the academic research community as a cutting-edge group, like Microsoft, IBM TJWatson, etc used to. at least in natural language processing (NLP). rnrnThe others now are not really big players anymore, they seem to have been diverted to app-specific stuff… which is sort of odd, because they never really gave a whole lot away, but Google’s providing all their fancy services for free, (though i guess they sell boxen to corporations). rnrnThe stuff they do (that i care about), though, is fuck-hard. Info retrieval, summarization, categorization, translations? They’re good at them, very good at them, but they’re still laughably far from ’solved’ (compared with, say, speech recognition) so they’re not in the diminishing returns zone by any means. rnFurthermore, these are all things where raw computer power *does* get you extremely far. One of the reasons why they’re whomping ass is because they have more resources. Other research groups can’t compete against one facet of their work, much less a startup against all of them. rnrnHell if i know what all their sekkrit software plans are, but as long as they keep doing unglamorous things better than anyone else, they’ll not be short of money or brains. rnrnFrom what I’ve seen over the past year-ish, Google’s _the_ place to be. Having hardware in spades would seem to be their biggest feature: none of this “waiting for a turn on the beowulf cluster” bullshit. However, they aren’t skimping on smarts, as you said. They’ve pulled in pretty much the top guy in my field, plus a hotshot post-doc who won the most recent ‘bestest conference paper ever’ award. Oh, and last week my advisor started a half-year-ish sabbatical at Google… rnrnIt’s looking like a giant sandbox for smart people to play in, and as long as they’ve got PhDs and hardware it should stay that way for a very long time.