Google’s nagging media problem

The question of whether or not Google is actually a species of media company has dogged it since its early days. Truth is, it’s missing one key characteristic.

By Ben Elowitz, contributor

FORTUNE — Since Google’s early rise, this question has consumed hordes of those watching it: Is Google a technology company or a media company? Paradoxically, Google has continuously defied the dichotomy, seeming to succeed in media precisely by maintaining that it is solely a technology company.

Can Google (GOOG) keep defying (or denying) reality?

Today’s Web is very different than yesterday. When Google was born, the basic technologies of devices, browsers, protocols, sites and apps were still in development. Now the Web is much more meaningful and mature: it links real people to the other people and things they care about in a socially connected environment. The question is, where and how does Google fit in to this new digital eco-system?

It’s important to note that Google’s world view is dominated by a utilitarian ethos, as though its product is mere software created just to provide the quickest route from point A to point B, or, in the case of search, from Q to A. For Google’s flagship, search, this made for a perfect match with an ideal user experience. It also provided a competitive advantage over other products, which forced people to enter simple questions into complicated experiences. In this way, Google became an accidental media company, answering queries with utilitarian search results and basic classified ads.

But the DNA that has made Google successful in search has made it more difficult for the company to excel in the next, more social, phase of digital media. Digital publishing isn’t a service or function; it’s all about immersing people in rich and rewarding experiences that make them want to linger and then keep coming back for more. The social Web values human connection and experience, not just functionality or speed. And that difference has led to Google’s multiple false starts — Buzz, Wave and Orkut — as well as its current attempt, Google+.

The sad truth about Google is that at its core, in culture and technology, the company’s history is one of pathetic indifference to audience experiences; instead, it’s wed to the almighty algorithm.

That’s why I chuckled a bit after reading a recent the back and forth between TechCrunch and Monday Note. First, TechCrunch reported on the $50 million raised by Flipboard — the hot iPad application that searches RSS feeds, Twitter, Facebook or Flickr and aggregates the results in a neat customized book-like layout. Why, asked TechCrunch, would an iPad application start-up need $50 million?

Well, said Flipboard CEO Mike McCue, because maybe Google will launch an attack. Monday Note responded by putting Google’s Flipboard threat in a very rational perspective. Google, explained Monday Note, doesn’t really have the creative culture or experiential mind-set to develop its own version of Flipboard. The reasons?

· Google’s services “will remain stuck forever in its current Arctic look and feel.”

· “Inserting ads in a delicate Flipboard-like interface will require more fine tuning than what the powerful by-the-bulk Google system currently provides.”

· “Flipboard’s attention to execution is way more Apple-like than Google-like.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Monday Note, which also called Flipboard “THE product any big media company or, better, any group of media companies, should have invented.”

It’s regrettable, but based on its history at least, Google doesn’t seem destined to become one of those media companies anytime soon. And the reason is that the very nature of media — building a relationship with audiences by providing them with experiences worth returning for — is that experiences need to be valued based on more than function alone.

As anyone knows from a wonderful dinner at a great restaurant, atmosphere matters. But in search, utility has been the name of the game, and Google’s success here seems to be leading it into a posture and position that is more and more protective of its home field – and more wedded than ever to its utilitarian approach. The more Google tries to support its search empire, the more it will fail in the rest of its media efforts .

On the other hand, if Google wants to succeed in a new era of personalized media, it needs to start by recognizing the human element, beyond the algorithm. It’s no coincidence that the competitors that are rapidly building market value today — like Apple (AAPL), Facebook, Twitter, and even Flipboard — are doing so with tremendous attention to the human factor. As the Web turns more social, Google needs to abandon its historical disregard for the human touch.

With Google+, it appears that Google is showing the first signs of doing so. Its Circles interface, and its approach to Hangouts, indicate that Larry Page and Vic Gundotra are beginning the change in priority. Its proposed acquisition of Motorola Mobility, which manufacturers hardware for consumers, adds another set of similar questions. But it remains to be seen whether the change will metastasize: can Google change its company’s DNA to value the human above the machine?

After all, in this increasingly social Web, the connections that Google needs to make are not between question and answer, but between people and their desires. And that has been the formula that has always worked in media.

Ben Elowitz is co-founder and CEO of media company Wetpaint.

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