Should you compare yourself to Google?

If you want to be a bad product manager, keep comparing your product and company to Google. Chastise your data center for not having thousands of generic servers that can be pulled and swapped at a moment’s notice. Complain to HR about how your workplace doesn’t have free lunch and ice cream, open office space, rock climbing walls, lap pools, and massage chairs like Google. Redesign the home page of your web site to just be a search box. Change your logo every week. Pressure your developers to release new enhancements several times a month. Launch new products and enhancements throughout the year whenever they are ready to go. Google does it, and look how successful they are — if you just copy everything they do, your products will be as successful as theirs!

If you want to be a good product manager, learn from Google and others but make appropriate comparisons. There are certainly things to be learned from Google, but endless comparisons do nothing to further your product and can in fact create a  combative atmosphere internally and a detrimental experience for your customers.

If you don’t have a corporate culture devoted to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” if you don’t have billions of dollars to spend on technical infrastructure each year, if you don’t have a product whose name is universally recognized as a verb, and if your stock price isn’t quintupling in less than 30 months, then it’s not appropriate to directly compare yourself to Google.

If you want to design products like Google, you need to design your company like Google. Google is able to do what they do because of the way they’ve structured their organization, and that comes through in their products. If your company is not structured like Google, then it will be very difficult to produce products similar to Google’s. There are lots of HR executives and data center managers that are probably salivating at the budgets their counterparts at Google are allotted. Within their own organizations, they will likely have to do the best they can with the resources they have and the end result will be something very different than Google.

Whether you compare your products to Google, Apple, or any other company or product currently in vogue, you need to understand that you products are different. What works for Google or the iPod (or the iPhone) or Netflix or Amazon may not always work for your product.

A big part of product management is learning from other products and applying those lessons to your product. Product managers need to understand the market and their customers, not blindly copy competitors and non-competitors. You will likely find things that would fail miserably for Google will work wonderfully for your market, your customers, your company, and your product.
In What Would Google Do?, Derek Powazek nicely summarizes the WWGD dilemma:

If you’re ever tempted to copy Google’s sparse interface, or have a client who says, “Well, Google did it this way, so they must be right,” tell them that copying Google says two things about you:

  1. You don’t care enough about your users to bother talking to them about why they should care about you (and, therefore, they won’t)
  2. You’re as unoriginal as the guy selling knockoff handbags on the corner, so it’s probably best to just avoid eye contact altogether.

So I beg you, the next time you’re faced with a design decision, don’t ask “What would Google do?” Instead ask, “What would the people who use our product totally love?”

Derek closes with “Answer that and Google might just have competition someday,” which I would change to “Answer that and people might just be writing articles titled ‘What Would [your product] Do?'”

2 thoughts on “Should you compare yourself to Google?

  1. Hey Jeff,

    Jen sent me to your blog…pretty interesting. I read the article on Google and I certainly agree with the concepts and message being delivered. I thought this advice was not only good for people comparing themselves to Google, but also applys to how you should react to all the research information that people like Spool and Neilsen publish. I couldn’t help but think you could have written the same type of article as it applys how we use others research. Our company spends a lot of time and money keeping abreast of the latest research. But I always remind people that we should not take the conclusion with blind faith….you should always ask yourself if the conclusion applys to your set of users…anyway…nice article.

  2. “A big part of product management is learning from other products and applying those lessons to your product. ”

    Define *learning*. To me that’s the key problem with comparing what you’re working on with any other existing thing. Googleitis is endemic in most online product management circles I’ve been to – I find it appalling that product managers would try to apply a solution (and not a concept) from another company, in another context, to what they are conceiving. It’s such a superficial analysis that it is no wonder that the conclusion is poor.

    I’m also offended by this because it *sounds* like deductive reasoning (“Google does X, Google is successful, X must be successful”) but that’s just apophenia. It’s basically establishing random relationships between pieces of data without any CONTEXT. It may sounds harsh, but I think people don’t know how to learn from examples. Examples are taken literally and the inability to extract a lesson or make a concept general enough that it can be applied in a different context is, in my opinion, the core problem with “learning” from others. It’s not learning, its copying.

    I’m trying to remember the name of an HRB article I read (but can’t) about the perils of translating metaphors from one domain to another (I found ‘The Fruitful Flaws of Strategy Metaphors’ by Tihamer von Ghyczy but I don’t think it’s the one). The Google example is the most obvious and though I agree with your argument, when a company has enough similarities (your third paragraph), it becomes very difficult to debate the invalidity of a superficial conclusion. The more things two companies have in common doesn’t mean more solutions have in common, still, the more data to (inflate the BS) support the argument, more difficult it is to expose the problem that nothing is learned from it, just copied.

    It’s common for me to be asked why can’t we do X like Google does, but in no way that comes accompanied by what Google was trying to achieve with X, or how X ties with Y and Z. That’s a big frustration I have as an information architecture practitioner and one of the key reasons why I start anything with a competitive analysis. I have always done that – mostly for my own benefit – but it really bothers me that I don’t see the analysis of similar if not more depth conducted by product managers.

    I have, however, met very competent product managers, but they also were not providing these insights. Rather, they had a better grasp of roles and responsibilities and trusted the specifics of the solution to me (in an information architect capacity), while focusing on the goals of the product, its associated metrics, and the key needs of the product. In other words, Googleitis and other maladies of online product management stem from wanting to do everything. I say let engineers engineer, designers design and product managers manage the product. Not knowing the boundaries of your responsibilities causes everyone headaches.

    So Jeff, now that I bursted with frustration, tell me, do ex-information architects make good product managers?

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