Google's recent purchase of semantic database start-up Metaweb may suggest a broken research program. Google bought a company with a large open source term list known as Freebase and technology to identify people, places, and things. Google invested in next generation content processing with its hiring of high profile IBM researcher Ramanathan Guha and a promising content processing company several years ago. With the deal for Metaweb, are Google's internal engineering solutions not up to snuff? Has the rise of Facebook tightened the thumbscrews on Google's paws? Or is it more of a managerial issue?
Years ago, I wrote a BearStearns' white paper "Google's Semantic Web: the Radical Change Coming to Search and the Profound Implications to Yahoo & Microsoft," May 16, 2007, about the work of Epinions' founder, Dr. Ramanathan Guha. Guha bounced from big outfit to big outfit, landing at Google after a stint at IBM Almaden. My BearStearns' report focused on an interesting series of patent applications filed in February 2007. The five patent applications were published on the same day. A close reading of the Guha February 2007 patent applications and other Google technical papers make clear that Google had a keen interest in semantic methods. The company's acquisition of Transformics at about the same time as Guha's jump to Google was another out-of-spectrum signal for most Google watchers. With Guha's Programmable Search Engine inventions and Dr. Alon Halevy's dataspace methods, Google seemed poised to take over the floundering Semantic Web movement.
Since Google purchased Metaweb, I have begun to reflect on what brought Google to this particular place in time. First, Google should be in a position to tap its existing metadata and classification systems. Google has its user input methods like Knol and its hugely informative search query usage logs to generate a list of entities. There is even the disambiguation system to make sense of misspellings of people like Britney Spears. I heard a Googler give a talk in which the factoid about hundreds of variants of Ms. Spears's name were "known" to the Google system and properly substituted "automagically" when the user goofed. The fact that Google bought Metaweb makes clear that something is still missing.
Maybe Google wanted the open source "magnet" Freebase? Maybe Google wanted Danny Hillis, another high profile computer expert? Maybe Google needed better technology? Whatever the reason, the deal cost a lot of money. Metaweb had attracted money from Benchmark Capital and other outfits. The total invested may be close to $60 million. Figuring a 10X return for the venture capitalist crowd, the acquisition price tag could be a hefty $600 million, maybe even more? Google has $30 billion in loose change, so Google can buy what it wants. What does Metaweb have that Google needs?
Second, the open-source angle is interesting. I am slowly becoming more supportive of open source solutions. However, I think that many commercial enterprises use open source the way Madison Avenue uses the word "new" on laundry detergent. The fact that Metaweb has its knowledgebase in open source means that anyone, including a Google engineer, could download the term list or access it through the Metaweb API. If the knowledgebase is open source, maybe Metaweb has some other assets such as people, technology, a mailing list, or technology that actually works? Following this line of reasoning, one has to ponder, "Why doesn't Google's existing technology, engineering, and knowledgebases deliver what's needed?" Has Google's vaunted engineering fallen short in what is a pivotal technical capability?
Third, the deal-which seems to be part of a mini-boom in semantic acquisitions-could be a "let's buy it now" play. Maybe Google feels pressure and thinks that a Cold War strategy is one way to deal with Facebook, Twitter, and the social shift in search.
These questions/ponderings point to three hypotheses about Google 2010.
Google's internal engineering solutions don't work in the morphing social search world.
This is a statement that strikes at Google's aggressive investment in its own engineers' systems and methods. In the semantic space, Google has some very heavy defensive power. Maybe the acquisition of Metaweb is an example of an outfit in a defensive position looking for new weaponry to meet a different type of enemy tactic.
2006 to 2010: Now vulnerable?
Second, since Google's miracle year of 2006 when everything went Google's way, 2010 is a different story. Stock's down. Legal hassles up. Competition is swarming. Google's responses have been ineffectual and sometimes skeptical. The invulnerable Google sure looks a lot like a company struggling from front to front, battle to battle, skirmish to skirmish.
New problem, wrong solution?
Google has been an organization keen on solving problems with logic. The solutions to Google's problems are less technological and more managerial. With Google's diffusion across different market sectors, the founders have lost the ability to apply laser focus to what are non-search problems. Nothing is more illogical than social behavior. If logic worked, then Google would not find itself bouncing from problem to problem across publishing, mapping, social networking, and other hot spots. Solving a focus problem with more technology or even duplicative technology won't work.
The Metaweb acquisition may add exactly what's needed. My research suggests that Google needs to buy companies that equip it for battles that Google is in danger of losing right now. There are other markets where Google is not making the type of headway that investors, even competitors once expected. Examples range from enterprise search to online shopping, from online games to streaming music. This acquisition calls attention to the need for Google to shift from hoarding technology to using it to generate significant new revenues from new markets. The recent earning report makes clear that Google is spending more and possibly struggling with cost controls in its core operations.
This is one more indication of the shift in the company's management capabilities between 2006 and 2010. The Metaweb deal may be one more piece of evidence of the nature of the shift in the last 48 months. Metaweb can become a great acquisition when Google uses the company's talent and technology to build ad revenue.