John Gapper Larry Page sets himself up for failure at Google

Larry Page returns to work at Google today as its chief executive, although he never went away in the first place, having spent a decade as “president of products” and part of the triumvirate that ran the company.

Still, with Eric Schmidt moving up to becoming “executive chairman” – usually an ambiguous term that means “the old chief executive who is not yet willing to relinquish the reins fully” – Mr Page appears to be back in charge of the company he co-founded with Sergey Brin.

The question is whether his return will reinvigorate Google to prevent it being knocked off its perch as the leading internet company by Facebook or others. Its search engine is still leader but search itself is increasingly under pressure.

Google is part of a broader debate about whether search engines are becoming cluttered with spam and low-value content produced by “content farms” such as Demand Media to gain advertising revenue through Google Search.

His problem, compared with other founders of companies that have returned to the helm to try to right things, is that he may be setting himself up to fail. Unlike companies such as Charles Schwab and Starbucks whose founders returned, Google is not in obvious trouble.It has underperformed the S&P 500 since the start of this year but before that had been in line since this time last year. Meanwhile, it still has a 65 per cent market share of basic internet search, although it has been challenged by Microsoft’s Bing.

Of course, these sorts of quotidian measures will not mean much to Mr Page, who is an ambitious visionary. His impatience with the status quo extends to impatience with people who appear to be wasting seconds of his time, as Wired records:

“When people do demos and they’re slow, I’m known to count sometimes,” Page says. “One one-thousand, two one-thousand. That tends to get people’s attention.” Paul Buchheit, the creator of Gmail, remembers performing an early demo of that service in Page’s office. Page made a face and told him that it was way too slow. Buchheit objected, but Page reiterated his complaint, charging that it was taking at least 600 milliseconds to reload. Buchheit thought, “You can’t know that.” But when he got back to his office he checked the server logs. Six hundred milliseconds.

This may (or may not) be a productive way to run a company, but Mr Page’s challenge is enormous. He is looking for another search-sized opportunity, which only comes along once in a lifetime, at a company where there is nothing obviously wrong to fix.

If Google simply carries on along roughly the same path of being an innovative but large company with start-ups and new technologies snapping at its heels which gradually cedes past dominance, he will (by himself and others) to have failed.