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It’s not always a hit at Google

Text by Lorena GALLIOT

Latest update : 2008-11-10

Not everything the Internet giant has touched turns to gold. Sometimes, users have voted with their mouse and rejected a Google offering. But that’s the price of relentless experimentation.

For most Web observers, Google is one of the most remarkable success stories of the past decade. A search engine, an online ad market leader with Google Ad Words and a veritable font of e-services, Google is the envy of other online companies. But even the mighty Google can sometimes fail.


Based on the principle that it’s impossible to make an omelette without breaking eggs, Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin chose to reinvest some of the company’s considerable revenues in experimental ventures in an attempt to diversify their online services. However, this diversification agenda saw some failures.


“It can’t be assumed that Google will succeed and become number one in everything it undertakes,” said Scott Kessler of Standard & Poor in “Time” magazine. “The company tries to diversify, but it has not yet succeeded in making its latest services profitable.”


For Anne-Gabrielle Dauba-Pantenacce of Google France, it hardly matters. “There are indeed heaps of applications which are not profitable,” she told FRANCE 24. “Some may call them failures, but they are important experiments in the eyes of our founders.”


For Jonathan Briggs, a professor of E-commerce at the University of Kingston to London, Google could make some judgment errors. But, he adds, when Google tries out a new service, one cannot say if it will succeed or fails. “They have the means to conduct the experiment,” he said. “It’s the heart of their business."


A basket of flops


Call them complete failures or the bricks to build a complex edifice. FRANCE 24 selected a sample of some of Google’s most spectacular failures for you to judge.


-Google Video

Google’s 2006 takeover of YouTube for a modest $1.65 billion created a lot of noise, but who remembers that the company initially tried to develop its own platform for video clips? The service never took off and the majority of the best videos classified by users came from… YouTube. Convinced about the future of video online, Google’s founders quite simply decided to buy out the competition.

- Google Answers

An innovative service, voted by a handful of insiders, which broke with the holy grail of paid online services. The principle of Google Answers was simple: a surfer posted a question and proposed a price which he or she was ready to pay for an answer. One of the researchers selected by Google then accepted (or declined) the tab and answered the question. The answers were generally well documented and well written, but the subscription-based service did not manage to compete with Yahoo Answers and its answers were not furnished by paid researchers, but by voluntary Web surfers. Google Answers lasted five years before closing down.

- Google Catalogues

Never heard of this service? Rest assured, you’re not the only one. Conceived along the lines of online sales sites such as, Google Catalogue was to offer Web users an exhaustive, updated catalogue of thousands of market products online. The site was abandoned while still at an experimental stage in 2002.

- Google Finance

Aimed at targeting businesses, this financial information site was a mitigated success. According to Nielsen Net Ratings, in Nov. 2006, Google Finance attracted 914,000 unique visitors, coming 36th in the list of similar services, against 12.8 million for Yahoo Finance. To make up for this, Google totally redesigned the interface of the site, aligning itself with Yahoo in order to provide key daily information, stock values and live currency market information.

- Orkut

Google’s social network site did not succeed in making a name for itself in North America and Europe, vis-à-vis the competition from social networks stars such as Facebook or MySpace. The setback however, was relative, with Orkut positioning itself at the top of social network sites in India and Brazil and coming up in the 28th spot in global rankings, although the network has sparked fierce controversy in India for failing to tackle pornography and malpractice issues. Among the mitigating factors: the absence of tools such as "blog" and "video", as well a strict adhesion to an "by invitation only” policy while launching the site.


Visionary failures


Some of Google’s failures were quite simply because they were well – a bit too well – ahead of their time.
The far from practical Google Voice Search, which was started in 2003, was quickly abandoned. The service offered users the chance to vocally announce their request on a (paying) vocal server and then find their results on the Internet : both expensive and of limited use. The technology driving it was however, the precursor to the current request services by mobile telephony, such ChaCha and Google 411.


Another notable example: Google improved its very early software, called Google Viewer, which allows users to view the requested results pages in a sort of slideshow format before clicking on the options open to them. The service as such did not represent a true time-saver and was abandoned in 2003. But the idea itself endures: today, several other search engines offer the same type of service, without the need to download preliminary software.


Google’s founders are aware that their creations are open to failure and that Web users who are not satisfied with a service do not hesitate to “vote with their mouse” and opt for the competition. Faced with this risk, the group remains faithful to its original policy: first develop the technology, then figure out how to market it. To date, despite some failures, this strategy seems to have worked rather well.

Date created : 2008-10-25