are you there google? it's me margaret

For Larry Page, a How-to-Fix-Google List

Yesterday’s announcement that Google’s Eric Schmidt will be handing the CEO reins back to co-founder Larry Page came as a shock, but with the company’s aura of invincibility fading, and its core business showing signs of age, the time was right for a change. There was “an example every hour,” of how triumvirate decision-making by Schmidt, Page, and co-founder Segrey Brin was hurting the company, Schmidt said. If Google wants to assure investors and consumers that rumors of its looming insignificance have been greatly exaggerated, there are a few key things that Larry has to do.

No. 1: Fix Search
Google’s cash cow is its online-search advertising business, but the search results are starting to look awfully spammy. Between content farms that flood the Internet with meaningless search bait and black hat optimizers that use sleazy tricks to get top results, there are entire industries devoted to gaming Google’s algorithms.

People who depend on Google for their livelihood have started to notice, and consumers are showing signs of getting antsy: There is a reason Microsoft’s Bing quickly picked up 12 percent of the search market, and it’s not because of its Gossip Girl product placements, or even vastly superior search results. Google has also drawn some ill will with an aggressive, some say illegal, tendency to push its own services to the top of the page.

It looks like Larry gets the seriousness of the problem. Friday, on day one of his regime, Google acknowledged the issue in a blog post, even as it downplayed its severity. “Reading through some of these recent articles, you might ask whether our search quality has gotten worse,” said principal engineer Matt Cutts. “The fact is that we’re not perfect, and combined with users’ skyrocketing expectations of Google, these imperfections get magnified in perception. However, we can and should do better.”

It will take more than a wonky breakdown, but it’s a start.

No. 2: Find Growth
The aforementioned cash cow is still so lucrative that it’s easy to forget that Google has never really succeeded in any other business. Despite the ubiquity of Gmail and YouTube, they are not yet successful stand-alone businesses. YouTube only recently made it into the black after incurring hundreds of million of dollars in losses over the years.

It’s not like Google isn’t aware of the problem. Witness the frenzied diversification into anything that looks hot: cars that drives themselves, social networks, and yesterday’s long-expected news of a Groupon clone. But trying everything hasn’t produced much of anything.

Larry needs to ditch the side projects and focus on the most promising ones: the Android mobile-phone operating system, and the mobile ad network AdMob, which even makes money from iPhones as it serves up 2 billion ads a day.

No. 3: Stop the Brain Drain
Here’s an enigma for Larry to unravel: Why does a company with five-star chefs, high-tech nap pods, and free massages have to throw millions of dollars in cash money at employees to get them to stay?

Part of the problem is Google’s convoluted management structure, which Page is clearly trying to fix. If a team has been working on an amazing project for a year, only to hear that it overlaps with someone else’s pet project, who wouldn’t want to jump ship? But it also has to do with Google’s size and a potentially fatal inability to face up to an unpleasant reality. From what we hear, there’s reluctance from some of the old guard to accept that Google is a massive corporation now.

There is a major intangible at play as well, something that may not be easy for someone who is more Chief Engineer than Chief Executive to grapple with. If the ambitious go-getters that make it through Google’s onerous interview process sense that the cool, sexy projects are happening at Facebook, Apple, or some stealth VC project with no name, then no amount of money is going to keep them on side, no matter how big a money truck Google backs up to their cubicle.

Which leads to….

No. 4: Consider a Personality Transplant

Tech bloggers were smitten with Eric Schmidt, but for all the wrong reasons. Sure, he grew Google into a $200 billion behemoth, but he also had a weakness for creepy Big Brother jokes delivered so dryly that no one could be sure he was joking. Contrast that with the controlling and charismatic Steve Jobs, surely one of the best salesmen in modern history, with a reality distortion field that may have made enemies but also bestowed an ineffable cool on his entire company.

Larry, by all accounts, makes Eric Schmidt look like Steve Jobs.

Ken Auletta explains:

Google’s engineer-driven approach to new products has been a long-standing problem. (Google Wave, anybody?) Unlike Apple, it seems to build for engineers and developers, not consumers. That’s great when you’re making an open source mobile platform like Android, which is hot on the iPhone’s tail due to its openness and potential ubiquity across multiple carriers and devices. It’s not so great when you made everyone on Gmail opt into Google Buzz ’ or for creating fanboys and girls who want to use your products, even if they have to anyway.

Either way, Larry, you’re going to need some charm to lend Google the same cool factor it had last time you were in charge. Maybe start by looking up from your Android phone every once in a while.

For Larry Page, a How-to-Fix-Google List