Google Has the Platform Problem, Not Facebook and Other 'Apps'

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- I spent a considerable amount of time over the weekend thinking about Google ( GOOG). I have always been torn between admiration and annoyance when my mind goes there.

In one respect, it's absurd to hammer on Google. It's a multibillion-dollar powerhouse that turned its name into a verb. Nothing but two fist taps to the chest respect on that one. At the same time, however, Google generates nearly all of its revenue (96% at last check) from advertising.
Google

Of course, Google nicely situates its core advertising business across various lucrative platforms. Nonetheless, in terms of revenue, Google is pretty much a one-trick pony. That pony is a stud, no doubt, but it has not done a good job at all monetizing its many other hobbies and innovations.

Wouldn't it be nice to see Google turn something else it does into a billion-dollar revenue stream, sort of the way Amazon.com ( AMZN) does with Amazon Web Services? Does everything at Google have to exist simply to build what has become a less-focused brand and its advertising business?

As I wrote an article discussing how Google could put Yelp ( YELP) out of business with one puff, I wondered why the company is not more aggressive taking out the Yelps of the world and, more importantly, building new businesses that generate fresh revenue lines.

While I do not want to see Google spread itself thin, it has the opportunity to do more. Ultimately, that "more" might merely further drive advertising revenues. That would not be a bad thing, but it could also translate into something bigger.

In many ways, Google produces content that is no better than what you can get from Yahoo! ( YHOO). In fact, I argue that Yahoo! actually produces better content than Google; Yahoo! has just done a horrific job leveraging/monetizing that content.

When I want content (news, sports, finance) I instantly go to Yahoo! In fact, I have the site tabbed multiple times on my browser - the Yahoo! homepage, my portfolio page at Finance and Yahoo! Sports NHL.

When I need search, I don't even go directly to Google anymore. I simply type my keywords into my browser's URL field and, because I have Google set as my default search engine, I receive Google search results. When I need directions, I type in an address in the same box and usually select Google Maps from the Google search-displayed choices. Same goes for shopping. Type in what you need and Google does a serviceable job aggregating sources for virtually all items. Sometimes I get there via a search result, other times by clicking on an ad. Either way, Google wins.

That said, search continues to become less of a factor in our lives. Thanks, in part, to Pandora ( P), discovery and personalization now trump search.

The always-connected experience is less about you telling your computer or mobile device what you need, but a favored platform bringing it to you before you ask or even know you need it. Personalization. Discovery. Relevant and targeted content.

Can Google ever deliver on these counts, beyond being that creepy ad server that cannot stop showing you a banner ad for something you searched for last hour or last week? That's none of the above; it's just haphazard and annoying.

At day's end, Google suffers from the problem so many think Facebook ( FB) needs to resolve.

Bears argue that Facebook needs to take control of the mobile interfaces its users access it on. If it cannot do this, the meme goes, Facebook will become just another app. I have difficulty seeing the sense in this logic.

There's nothing wrong at all with Facebook (or Pandora or Yelp or Twitter or Netflix ( NFLX)) being "just" an app. True -- it cannot be "just another" app, but its ability to control a platform or have prominent placement on one will not dictate its ultimate success or failure. It's all about Facebook's ability to continue to deliver a relevant service that keeps people coming back consistently.

Companies that make mobile devices and content platforms want you to spend time on them. They want you to become addicted. They want you to use data. They want you to buy stuff. If Facebook, Pandora, Twitter, Netflix, Yelp and the rest of the usual suspects remain relevant, in their own distinct ways, they'll generally receive top billing on your smartphone or tablet.

The apps that drive engagement and consumption will almost always end up out in front.

Google owns a freaking mobile phone company. It has its own operating system. And it is the Web site people flock to by the billions when somebody else has not, instantly, served up, right in front of them, something they need or want to know.

But is it really where you go to connect with your friends? No. You go to Facebook. Is it where you go to listen to music? No. You go to Pandora or Spotify or Apple's ( AAPL) iTunes. Is it where you go when you need information on a restaurant? No. You go to Yelp or OpenTable ( OPEN). Is it where you go when you want to watch a movie? Maybe so, though I venture more people head to Netflix for that purpose than YouTube.

Thanks to the fact that it is the dominant search engine, Google can drive massive amounts of traffic to its smattering of decent content offerings. It can connect eyeballs with ads. But, where does it go from here?

It's past the time for Google to do something beyond search and the placement of seemingly random ads (dare I say spam?) across the Web.

Make the restaurant review business shine. Tighten the grip on Android and start making some money, not loosely connected to search/advertising, off of it. Do something. Do anything, but stop tinkering with search results and other-worldly side projects and build a business that can move beyond being what, for all intents and purposes, amounts to a one-trick pony.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

At the time of publication, the author was long FB and P.