Google fell under new management this year, and the shake up resulted in some heavy changes. A new idea of what legitimate content should look like, a social network that the company refuses to call a social network, and the loss of an experimental playground are just a few. In case you missed a beat, here's a look back at the highlights.  

1. Catch Ya Later, Eric

The year started with a move that promised permanent change: The departure of CEO Eric Shmidt. After nearly 10 years, Google's main man stepped down to Executive Chairman and co-founder Larry Page took over.

While Google and co. tried to promote excitement over the change, many considered the company’s recent -- and heavy -- talent losses: AdMob co-founder Omar Hamoui, Google Maps and Wave creator Lars Rasmussen and YouTube co-founder and CEO Chad Hurley all left the Internet giant within months of each other.

Google designer Douglas Bowman’s famous 2009 bow-out resurfaced, along with a personal blog post that provided a peek into the dark side of working for a massive company:

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

When Rasmussen left to go work for Facebook, he too claimed Google's growing size hindered the ability to get things done. "The energy there is just amazing, whereas it can be very challenging to be working in a company the size of Google," he said. In fact, of the more than 1,900 Facebook employees with resumes on LinkedIn, 300 of them list Google as a past employer.

Given these critiques, most of us guessed that the change in management would likely target faster decision making processes, bigger projects and better results. And boy did it.

2. +1

Facebook's "Like" button had a good solo run across the Web, but nothing lasts forever. Google's +1 hit the ground running, allowing users to recommend content to their friends and contacts directly from Google search results, ads, websites, etc.

"With a single click you can recommend that raincoat, news article or favorite sci-fi movie to friends, contacts and the rest of the world," read Google's official statement. "The next time your connections search, they could see your +1’s directly in their search results, helping them find your recommendations when they’re most useful."

That usefulness later went international, influencing Search results everywhere and expanding the company's Facebook-like friendliness:


3. The Big Social Move: Google Plus

The long-rumored Google Plus network made a low-key private launch in June. At first it looked a lot like Facebook but with different names for its tools (Circles instead of Groups, +1 instead of Like, etc.) but time has told a different story for Big G's contribution to the social Web.

The most important thing to keep in mind about Plus is that it is not a standalone product, so it shouldn't be compared to the likes of Facebook. Instead, it aims to be the hub, the central point, of the entire Google experience. In most recent times, we've seen the injection of Google+ into Reader, Blogger and YouTube already. Eventually, all of Google will be integrated. 

“We think of Google+ as a mode of usage of Google,” said Google executive, Bradley Horowitz. “[It's] a way of lighting up your Google experience as opposed to a new product. It’s something that takes time to appreciate, even internally. It’s easy to think of Google+ as something other than just Google, and I think it’ll take more launches before the world catches up with this understanding.”

In case you've been living under a rock, here's a quick video showing the basic interface. There's a focus on the division of friends into groups, so you're more clear on which people are receiving which updates:


Plus is also taking a turn for the Business side of things with Google Pages, a point for companies to get in on the action. Google SVP for Engineering, Vic Gundotra, highlighted the main advantages:

For you and me, this means we can now hang out live with the local bike shop, or discuss our wardrobe with a favorite clothing line, or follow a band on tour. Google+ pages give life to everything we find in the real world. And by adding them to circles, we can create lasting bonds with the pages (and people) that matter most.

For businesses and brands, Google+ pages help you connect with the customers and fans who love you. Not only can they recommend you with a +1, or add you to a circle to listen long-term. They can actually spend time with your team, face-to-face-to-face. All you need to do is start sharing, and you'll soon find the super fans and loyal customers that want to say hello.

4. The Rise of Chrome

Google's frequent updates gave its Chrome browser a nice little edge this year, and the app store added a boost in convenience. Now you can have a podcast playing in the background, run Google Docs, have a game of Angry Birds that auto-pauses when you tab out of it, and generally run everything at once, all the time. It's a world of fun. 

Other browsers like Firefox and IE can match a lot of this functionality, but Chrome seems to be adopting the app/cloud lifestyle we're used to and is most definitely faster than its rivals. In fact, The latest version just passed Internet Explorer 8 to become the most popular desktop web browser in all the land. According to statistics from StatCounter, Chrome 15 took 23.6% of the worldwide market compared with Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 at 23.5% in the last full week of November.

"Google announced Chrome for business exactly a year ago and IT administrators appear to have embraced it in a remarkably short time," said Aodhan Cullen, CEO, StatCounter. "Looking at the daily stats, Chrome 14 and 15 have been overtaking IE8 at weekends since the beginning of October. However, Chrome 15 overtook IE8 for the first time during the five day working week, in week commencing 5th December. It looks as if people favour Chrome on weekends at home but office commercial use has now caught up." 

5. The Rise of the Chromebook

Naturally, the Chromebook is next on the list. Google's go-Cloud-or-go-home OS launched with much fanfare at this year's Google I/O, and these Samsung machines are currently sporting some serious road worthiness. 

With Google now pushing the OS as a credible alternative to Windows PCs and Macs, can this reignite plummeting sales of affordable notebooks (as everyone goes iPad-crazy) or will concern over what it means to have all of your crucial data hosted in the cloud reign supreme?

In whatever case, we can't deny the niftyness of it all: 


6. Analytics: Real-time, Social, Premium; Better, Faster, Stronger

Google Analytics got pimped a number of times this year, mostly after the Postrank acquisition. Some of the cooler new features include a new “+1 Metrics” section, which provides reports on the impact of the Internet giant's +1 button on search in three flavors:

  • Search Impact report: Find out if your clickthrough rate changes when personalized recommendations help your content stand out. Do this by comparing clicks and impressions on search results with and without +1 annotations.
  • Activity report: Shows how many times your pages have been +1’d, from buttons both on your site and on other pages (such as Google search).
  • Audience report: Displays aggregate geographic and demographic information about the Google users who’ve +1’d your pages. To protect privacy, Google only shows audience information when a significant number of users have +1’d pages from your site.

Perhaps even more useful is Social Plugin Tracking. The tool compares the impact of different types of social actions on your website. It tracks +1s, tweets, Facebook Likes, Facebook Sends and other social actions.

Meanwhile, Google Analytics Real-Time is a new set of reports that show website activity as it happens. Users can now track the efficacy of campaigns by attaching related tags to links shared on popular platforms like Facebook and Twitter:  

googleanalytics_RT.jpg

Prior to the launch, Google Analytics reports took somewhere around three hours (or more) to display the most recent data, making it impossible to garner any sort of immediate gratification. This small adjustment hits home hard as it brings the Internet giant's analytics solution into a growing arena, currently populated by solutions such as Chartbeat, Woopra and Click. 

And if that's not enough for you, the Internet giant also announced a Premium tier for enterprise companies who want more support than what the free version offers.  

7. S is for Search and Social 

Google rolled out Social Search a couple of years ago, but 2011 saw some interesting updates. Now, results include notes for links people have shared on Twitter, Flickr, Quora and other social sites. For example, if someone you’re connected to has publicly shared a video link for a Super Bowl ad on Twitter, that link may appear in your Super Bowl ad search results along with an annotation that is only visible to you when you're signed in.

 

For enterprise users, the question here is about what kind of impact social search will have on one's business. Social search adds an important dimension to SERPs: The trust factor. Readers are more likely to click results that friends have read or recommended, and Google might give your content additional relevancy points if more people give their approval by bookmarking it.

8. Death to Content Farms

Another change to Search signaled what Google hoped would be the end of content farms, a.k.a. sites with low-quality content and highly concentrated keyword density. Google first addressed the issue by releasing a Chrome browser extension that let users block unwanted domains from Search. But that wasn't enough, so next came some actual algorithm adjustments  aimed at lowering ranking power.

Google’s official announcement explained the change like this:

This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites -- sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites -- sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.

Now, the question on everyone's mind is about how to define a content farm, and why they are bad for the Web. As per usual, online communities don't seem to be in agreement. Proponents of Google's move to minimize content farm roles in search results argue that these are spammy because of the low quality and lack of originality in the articles. On the other side of the coin are those who argue that there is no difference between a supposed content farm and a search-optimized website, meaning legit web development businesses that focus on search and user-friendly webpages could be targeted.

9. Farewell, Buzz... and Lots of Other Stuff

Google giveth, and Google taketh away. Circling back to where we started, Larry Page's reign has done away with the Internet giant's slow, experimental approach and turned it into a non-fat steamroller. 

Nobody was surprised to see Buzz join Wave in Google heaven, but then a ton of other projects got slashed. In September alone, 10 saw the guillotine: 

  • Aardvark: A Q&A social search startup acquired for US$ 50 million in 2010
  • Desktop: Launched in October 2004. All associated APIs, services, plugins, gadgets, and support for the desktop search software were discontinued September 14.
  • Fast Flip: Launched in September 2009. The visual browser’s approach will live on in Google’s “other display and delivery tools.”
  • Google Maps API for Flash: Launched in May 2008. Ability for developers to add Google Maps functionality is being “deprecated”; Google will focus on JavaScript Maps API v3.
  • Google Pack: Launched January 2006. Software bundling and updating system was discontinued September 2.
  • Google Web Security: Launched 2007. Offered enterprise security; Google will discontinue new sales but support existing customers.
  • Image Labeler: Launched in August 2006. A game that let users label random images.
  • Notebook: Launched in May 2006. Combined notes plus clip and save URL, text, and images.
  • Sidewiki: Launched in September 2009. To focus on Google’s “broader social initiatives,” Sidewiki, which allowed users to read and comment on every website, is being discontinued.
  • Subscribed Links: Launched in May 2006. The custom search results stopped appearing for subscribers as of September 15.

None of those losses hit as hard as Labs, though. The experimental playground for googlelabs.com met its end in July, to the dismay of many a user. As Stacey Higginbotham of GigaOm noted, many Googlers are frustrated with the lack of information (which features we’ll lose and when). "If I knew what was going away, and when, I could start researching for alternatives. Or maybe a kindly startup could volunteer to take the feature out of Google’s hands and support it," she said.

Meanwhile, others support the giant's decision to reduce expectations for non-stop innovation and magicked-up virtual spaces. Doing so will free up essential time for focusing attention on core products, or heavy newcomers like Google+.

"We’ve never been afraid to try big, bold things, and that won’t change," insists Alan Eustace, Senior Vice President. "We’ll continue to take risks on interesting new technologies with a lot of potential. But by targeting our resources more effectively, we can focus on building world-changing products with a truly beautiful user experience."

In any case, Google's moves reflect those from a number of other companies, making the approach to 2012 similar across the board: Focus on the content; Keep everything else simple.