My Guardian column this week argues that we’re witnessing not just the collapse of the financial (and auto and newspaper…) industries but the birth of a new economy best seen through – you guessed it – the lens of Google:
The financial crisis might be damaging countless companies around the world, but last month Google announced another quarter of growth, with profit up 26%. When it reported similar results two quarters before, The New York Times’ headline proclaimed, “Google defies economy.” It should have read, “Google defines economy.”
In this crisis, we are witnessing more than the failure of mortgages, derivatives, banks, and regulation. We are also seeing the dawn of a new economy; one best viewed and understood through the lens of Google, the one company that – by design or by luck – is built for the emerging world order.
Google’s first advantage is being digital. Who wants to be in the business of stuff any more – building cars, printing newspapers, selling CDs, growing food? Owning and controlling stuff was the basis of most business. And the reflexive response to a collapse in finance and equities used to be to return to the real: buy property. No more. Now the best retreat is to the value of knowledge.
In a sense, Google itself is built on a derivative: its data on data. Like the derivatives that got us into this mess, Google’s are based on creating abundance. But unlike those corrupted financial products, Google’s metaknowledge creates new and real value.
In Google’s economy, small is the new big. Of course, big is still big — Google itself is gargantuan. But it doesn’t grow by borrowing capital to buy companies (likely no one will for some time to come). Instead, Google created a network for an abundance of new advertisers and a platform for countless new businesses, all independent of Google. Indeed, Google does not want to own the assets — content to commerce — upon which its empire is built.
To succeed like Google, companies will build networks and platforms as it does. eBay’s platform enables thousands of merchants to sell more than America’s largest department-store chain, Federated. In Google’s era, the mass market is replaced by a mass of niches. So by continuing to track and measure only the biggest businesses — as the FTSE, the Dow Jones Average, and Nielsen ratings do — we miss sight of the small economy.
Another hallmark of Google’s economy is transparency. Even as Google remains opaque about details of how it does business — its ad commission, for example — it demands transparency of the rest of us. For without openness, we get no search-engine optimization, no precious Googlejuice. Regulators, customers, and citizens, too, surely will demand more transparency in business now that we have been so badly burned by secrets hidden in what are now glibly called toxic assets. Online, the truth is often just a link away.
This link economy that is the real basis of Google’s success, can also bring business benefits for other industries. Struggling and rapidly shrinking newspapers can now specialize—a local paper becomes more local and links to national coverage. Do what you do best and link to the rest, I tell editors.
Marketers are also beginning to learn that with direct links and relationships with customers, they may reduce ad spending. But relationships between companies and customers must be built on trust, and trust comes from handing over control. David Weinberger, author of Everything’s Miscellaneous, puts it this way: “There is an inverse relationship between control and trust.” Post-meltdown, the public will demand control — the internet and Google provide tools they will use to seize it.
Trust itself is becoming the basis for new business. eBay’s systems enable customers to anoint merchants with trust; Amazon demonstrates that we trust the opinions of fellow customers over critics; PayPal and Prosper help us make trusted transactions; Google knows which sites we trust with our links and clicks. We don’t trust banks anymore; hell, they don’t trust each other. In Google we trust.
Google manifests the business of trust in its famous decree, “don’t be evil.” Etch that over doors on Wall Street. If enough people had asked whether getting and issuing toxic mortgages, and making and selling toxic assets was evil — instead of someone else’s problem — I wonder whether we’d be in this mess. Our meltdown was not inevitable. But the transition to a Google economy is.