The Google worldview is a thoroughly binary one. There are Google users, and then there's everyone else. Google users are treated like royalty. Everyone else is a potential resource for users -- nothing less, and nothing more. That view has made many enemies for the Frienemy over the years. It's also made it the unrivaled information resource on the Web.
But times are changing.
As Google expands far beyond search -- and into a vast array of online and offline businesses, from TV advertising to software applications -- Google will need to think beyond the basic terms of Google services and users. It will need to think in terms of partnerships with a slew of different companies and organizations. To understand how drastic a shift that is, consider last week's spat between Google and eBay.
For a while now, Google has been looking to push Google Checkout, its PayPal competitor, onto the eBay system. In a move to flex its muscles so eBay would pay heed, Google invited eBay Live! conference attendees to a Google party, posted on the Google Checkout blog under the heading "Let Freedom Ring." In that same post, Google referred to the party as "a celebration of user choice." The "choice" here was the choice of different payment systems within eBay -- PayPal or, if Google gets its way, Google Checkout.
EBay was not amused. In retaliation, it pulled all of its monthly $26 million in spend out of Google advertising. Google hurriedly cancelled the party; but the damage was already done. As of this writing, the eBay ads have yet to return to the Google SERP.
The party seemed like an audacious move on Google's part -- but it was largely in keeping with Google's style. In the party invitation, Google presented itself as a solution that gives eBay users more choice. It's the old model of users, with Google's help, up against the rest of the world. It's not so different from the way Google ignores protests of news organizations, book publishers, and the occasional porn provider about Google News, Google Book Search, and Google Image Search (respectively) -- all by arguing that Google is providing a better end-result for search users.
But what Google has failed to grasp is that eBay is different. Google can antagonize news organizations, book publishers, and the adult industry, because it doesn't hold major partnerships with them. But eBay, as Google's largest advertiser until last week, was a true partner. And offending partners doesn't make for good business.
As Google looks to expand its kingdom in both scope and depth across the information universe, partnerships with other businesses will become increasingly important -- and there will be far fewer bridges Google can afford to burn. Consider, for example, how much Google will need to rely on the entertainment industry's help in making good on its $1.6 billion YouTube buy. If it wants to keep YouTube traffic long-term, Google will need the professional content that, in pirated form, currently drives so much of YouTube's viewership. To keep that professional content flowing, Google will need the help of the very Hollywood businesses that it's alienated since buying YouTube last winter.
Even Google's relationship with users themselves is becoming more complex. As Google looks to provide more and better search information, it's also gathering more personal information. As I wrote two weeks ago, the numbers aren't in yet on how comfortable the world is or is not with Google and privacy. But many users arebound to feel that Google is spying on them, and privacy issues will only become more serious as personalized search ramps up, while Google Street View goes full-steam.
The lesson here for Google is that it's not 1998 anymore. Google is no longer leading users as, together, they shape the infant Web into whatever it can become. Google is #241 on the Fortune 500, sells for over $500 a share, and is looking to expand far beyond its unrivaled leadership on a fully-established Internet. Google is no longer the maverick upstart. Google is the establishment.
I, for one, think that's great -- when was the last time such a smart, user-friendly company joined the establishment? But being part of the establishment means that you have a lot more friends to lose, that there are more toes you risk stepping on, and that consumers won't necessarily reward you as a friend -- they'll see you as a corporation providing a service.
And so a decade after it began, Google can't afford to act as a lone player anymore. If it does, we might see a lot more partners than eBay jumping ship.