How Larry Page must breathe new life into Google

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

  • Published
Larry Page, co-founder of Google
Image caption,
Observers have said that Larry Page needs to bring back a 'start up' mentality to Google to harness creativity

It may seem like deja vu for Larry Page as he becomes Google's chief executive, a role he held a decade ago.

This time the co-founder steps back into the job as the world's most influential internet company is caught in the cross hairs of politicians, privacy advocates and rivals.

Since 2001, Eric Schmidt has led the search giant in an unusual triumvirate, sharing power with Mr Page and fellow co-founder Sergey Brin.

When Mr Page was last in charge Google had about 1,000 employees. Today it has nearly 25,000 and earned $29bn in its last quarter.

"Target on your back"

As Google has grown it has come under increasing antitrust scrutiny, examination by federal bodies, European regulators and privacy advocates.

Last week Google agreed a landmark settlement with the Federal Trade Commission that it "violated its own privacy promises" with its Buzz social network and agreed to regular privacy audits over the next 20 years.

The European Commission has begun an antitrust probe while US senators are calling for public hearings on competitive practices.

Last month, a federal judge rejected a legal settlement that would have allowed Google to create the world's biggest digital library.

In business front, it faces stiff competition from Facebook and Twitter as millions spend their time on these services rather than Google.

"As you become powerful and successful, there is always going to be a target on your back," Dorie Clark of Clark Strategic Communications told BBC News.

"Google has gone from the underdog to a major player that gobs of other companies want to take down.

"That being said, the public sees Google as a fascinating and valuable company. They do need to be watchful but I don't think they are in danger of losing their cachet just yet," added Ms Clark, who has worked for Google in the past.

In March, UK branding consultancy Brand Finance, said Google had the most valuable corporate brand in the world valued at over $44bn. Second was Microsoft with $43bn.

"Lead... be tough... say no"

Advice has not been in short supply prior to Mr Page's first day in charge.

On question and answer site Quora, the suggestions for Mr Page range from urging him to foster a "start-up" mentality to getting rid of layers of management. Others say to concentrate on innovation and lead from the front.

"As it stands today, in terms of management, Google is the opposite of Apple," said Martin Varsavsky, head of Fon and a Google shareholder.

"Steve Jobs is a genius dictator with a very strong vision. The whole company aligns behind him to execute.

"Lately, Apple's Spartan style is winning over Google's democracy.

"Larry and Sergey need to learn from Steve: to lead, to be tough and to say no - but hopefully without Steve's ability to humiliate others when making a point."

Top tasks go beyond being strong. Many say Google engineers are stifled by an expanding internal bureaucracy.

"Larry needs to strip away layers of management," says Brady Forrest, conference chair for O'Reilly.

"I have friends who worked there and they would be one of tens of employees reporting to someone and they were stuck in this system and they never got time with their managers and never knew how to proceed to resolve issues.

"At Google they are going to need to find a balance between empowering employees but also making sure there is enough managerial oversight."

For former staffer Steve Lacy, the solution is about putting innovation front and centre.

"If you remove the smartest one per cent from Google and put them in a separate building with no agenda, what happens most certainly is innovation.

"And especially if they have the freedom to do whatever they want and not necessarily what affects Google's bottom line.

"YouTube is an example of a business conceived as a fun idea, exciting and individual," he said. "It has taken a long time to turn into a business and it is clear it is going to be very profitable. That longer term vision is what is needed.

"Coming up with an optimisation tool for ads is not fun and exciting. The difficulty is how to take those bright people and remove them from where they are which might be making sure that Gmail stays up," added Mr Lacy, who now heads up recruitment site Proovn.

Personal challenge

Known as a private individual who rarely gives interviews, Mr Page kept his own counsel as the first day in the job approached.

Unlike his co-founder Mr Brin, he rarely attends product launches.

Public speaking is said not to be Mr Page's strong suit but communications expert Ms Clark said he needs to change that.

"The first thing he needs to do is increase the level of media access.

"He doesn't need to become a showman or change his personality but he does need to talk to the media. He is the face for Google now and people want to hear from the leader."

Mr Lacy remembers the days when Mr Page, Mr Brin and Mr Schmidt would deliver pizza to product teams who worked all night to meet a deadline - an atmosphere that would work now.

"I don't think he (Larry) has to change a lot.

"I always found him very personable. He is not as polished as Eric and there is something charming about that. He is the kind of guy who when he says something, you listen and he tells it like it is.

"He is an engineer at heart. He needs to walk the halls and talk to people more and be more accessible. Larry and Sergey are extremely bright and always have great ideas and are very opinionated. I think that is a good thing for inspiring innovation," added the ex-Googler.

When Mr Page's return to the job of CEO was announced, Mr Schmidt tweeted that he was "ready to lead" and that "Day-today adult supervision no longer needed!"

Everyone from Wall Street to Main Street and beyond will be watching to see if that is true.