Reverse Engineering Google: Is Imitation Really the Best Form of Innovation?

Unethical search engine optimization (SEO) and paid search (PPC) sales reps use the term “reverse engineering” to sell snake oil to naïve companies.

Now, two Harvard Business Review authors claim they’ve reverse-engineered the secret to Google’s innovation process. This month, two distinguished college professors published “Reverse Engineering Google’s Innovation Machine.” Be forewarned: the article is a gourmet recipe for unmitigated disaster.

What’s the best way to innovate? Imitate!

Who came up with such a Pythonesque idea? Bala Iyer, an associate professor of technology operations and information management, and Thomas H. Davenport, the President’s Distinguished Professor of Information Technology and Management at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, have created such a wacky concept, it’s sure to be a bestseller.

Will the elite audience of HBR believe they’ve found the secret to innovating the Google Way? Well, the authors visited the Googleplex in person and found themselves in an impromptu comedy sketch worthy of Robin Williams.

We haven’t spent a lot of time in the Googleplex, and between us we’ve consumed only one of the company’s tasty and free cafeteria meals. One of us impulsively tried to question Sergey Brin in the Googleplex courtyard, but he beat a hasty retreat and came close to calling security.

The genial professors feel that Google is “quite open” because “there are scores of official and unofficial blogs accessible through the company’s website, for example.”

They profess that as “non-insiders” they’ve been able to “unearth countless clues” as to how the company innovates “appropriately enough, through Google searches.”

Based on our years of observing how Google does what it does so well, we have identified a number of key innovation practices that others can profitably adopt. To be sure, some of Google’s attributes – two are its category-killing search engine and a massive, scalable IT infrastructure – would be very hard and very costly to emulate.

Anyone with a dash of common sense would stop reading there. Lacking common sense, I read on.

“But others – technology explicitly architected for innovation coupled with a well-considered organizational and cultural strategy – can be applied diligently and successfully by businesses across many industries.”

No, they can’t.

Morgan Stanley estimates Google’s total advertising revenue as $21.9 billion. Less payments to advertising partners, Google’s total ad revenue would be $15.7 billion.

By comparison, Time Warner, the largest media company in the world, earned $8.8 billion in advertising revenue last year. Viacom had $4.7 billion in ad revenue last year.

So the first bit of advice should be: earn about $22 billion in ad revenue, then let’s talk.

The authors have boiled down the Google Way into simple bromides they can teach you at Harvard Business School, or rather, Babson College. (Ranked #1 among all business schools for entrepreneurship!)

Practice Strategic Patience

Wouldn’t all companies like to be patient? It’s easier to be patient when you’re printing money and dominating the world’s advertising market. The authors are impressed by Google’s ambition to organize the world’s information and view “search-based advertising (as) the first highly successful instantiation of this mission.”

If you ever read the word “instantiation” again, be assured the authors are engaging in obfuscation. What do the authors mean? Is it “The act of creating an ‘instance’ of a generic unit by replacing its formal parameters by a set of matching actual parameters?”

What’s more: the authors admit early on that Google has acquired many already successful “information management tools,” namely Picasa (photo management); YouTube (online videos); DoubleClick (ad serving); Keyhole/Google Earth (maps and satellite photos); and Urchin/Google Analytics (Web analytics).

Since when was acquisition a roadmap to innovation? Remember, Google’s not claiming to be the most innovative company in the world.

Exploit an Infrastructure “Built to Build”

The profs’ “built to build” advice includes “scalability; an accelerated product-development life cycle; and support for third-party development and mashups.” That’s simply open architecture, open source, agile development and APIs. Other than the software industry, where in the world would this advice apply?

Rule Your Own Ecosystem

That’s better advice than allowing others to rule your ecosystem, or perhaps letting your ecosystem rule itself. So what company’s a shining example? Why Salesforce, Google’s partner.

Exercise Architectural Control

Here the model (besides Google) is Amazon. That’s great.

Build Innovation into Organizational Design

That means: “Budget innovation into job descriptions. Eliminate friction at every turn. Let the market choose. Cultivate a taste for failure and chaos.”

Would the authors suggest Jerry Yang present that as his Peanut Butter Manifesto to the board of directors? Certainly Yahoo is one of the few companies similar enough to Google to benefit from the authors’ advice. The professors think a range of companies could follow the Google lead:

Google’s commitment to budgeted innovation and a frenzied, low-friction product-development process is already worthy of emulation by firms that simply need more new products and services to offer the marketplace.

What companies “simply need more new products and services to offer the marketplace?” Not Google. The company’s cutting back on releasing new products. The marketplace doesn’t need new products and services: it needs solutions that users or advertisers are willing to pay for.

Support Inspiration with Data

Google has a massive amount of data available. For example, insight gleaned from the vast clickstreams of its own and its partners’ websites can be used to test and support any new idea or product offering.

Create a Culture Built to Build

No one can argue with Google’s corporate culture as an innovative – and costly – way to entertain, feed and stimulate employees. The authors cite a Google employee who shares his “most amazing experience” at the Googleplex: “…when the chef Mario Batali came to give away copies of his new book and [the cafeteria served” one of his menus for lunch. Then in the afternoon Thomas Friedman gave a talk about the flattening world, and Robin Williams gave an impromptu comedy sketch to close out the day.”

Ironically the employee and the HBR “Reverse Engineering” authors seem to have missed Friedman’s point: the world isn’t “flattening.” Friedman means flat in the sense of level playing field in commerce and competition. Google succeeds by eliminating the level playing field with a search engine that dominates the Internet and an advertising system that monetizes Web pages better than any system ever created.

Friedman asks readers to recognize that the Earth is round, not flattening. That’s the Google Earth, the Google Ecosystem, and any company that ignores that fact does so at their own risk.

Imitating Google is the most sincere form of flattery – and the best way to be flattened by your competitors.

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