Navigation
Tweets
« Health IT 100: Leaders in Healthcare Social Media | Main | Look to Payers for Innovation in Health Information »
Tuesday
Jun282011

Google Health Post-Mortem

Last Friday, June 24, Google announced that it will shut down Google Health, which had become a much-hyped platform within the health IT community for storing one’s personal health and wellness data. Outside of the health IT community, Google Health made little impact.  I have read at least a dozen other articles that dissect the technical reasons and health IT insider viewpoints on why Google Health failed.  I’d like to discuss the reasons why Google Health never gained traction within Google.

I’ve followed Google from the very early days when they burst on the scene as a new search engine when nobody thought we needed a new search engine.  Google transformed search by using an algorithmic approach to identify the most relevant results.  Among the three key factors that differentiated Google from the pack were 1) algorithms that ranked pages based on popularity (Page Rank) and 2) scale: the larger the collection of sites that were crawled, the better the results (at the time circa 2000).  Since its introduction, Google’s algorithms have changed many times, but the fundamental fact that Google prefers to depend on programmable solutions that don’t require human intervention remains constant.  And, Google continues to chase large-scale opportunities where it can become an essential layer of the infrastructure.

Factor 3) is the business model. Remember the early 2000s when we all wondered how Google would make money?  After Yahoo acquired Overture in 2003, the revenue model was decided.  Keyword-driven advertising became the preferred method to monetize traffic on the popular search engine sites and scale matters in this model.    

With these three key factors in mind: algorithms not people, scale, and an advertising-driven revenue model, let’s consider why Google Health was destined for failure.

Google has done an excellent job of staying ahead in the “scale” category.  Google loves large repositories of data that it can monetize via advertising.  Google Books is an example. Once the legal hurdles have been worked out, Google Books will run without much human intervention –and has the bonus of providing an e-commerce revenue stream along with an advertising revenue stream.

Where Google got into some early trouble with Google Books was they wanted to side-step the hard work involved in working out agreements with publishers, so they did a deal with AAP and the Writers Guild that required authors and publishers to opt-out and take action if they wanted to set their own pricing terms.  When it came to orphan works, Google would be the presumptive copyright owner if the rightful owner couldn’t be located. So far, Google Books fits with the scale and business model elements. But, Google Books required a heavy initial investment in scanning books.  That certainly requires significant human effort, but Google was able to hire inexpensive labor and only older books needed to be scanned.  Newer books are available in electronic form, so once the initial investment is completed, the humans that place the books on the scanners will no longer be necessary. 

With Google Health I have to agree with Kent Bottles who wrote that Google found the degree of complexity in healthcare too great because it required too much specialized conversion programming and relationship-building with multiple stakeholders.  This variability that cannot be easily managed algorithmically is beyond Google’s chosen core competencies.

With respect to revenue models, Google said they would never put ads around PHR data in Google Health.  I think I still have a copy of the initial terms and conditions that stated that Google planned to monetize Google Health through data-mining aggregated patient data and then presumably selling the results to interested parties, with Pharma undoubtedly at the top of the list. In order for the mined data to be useful, scale and consistency of content types and formats would be necessary.  The revenue models could include keyword and display ads or content sales.

So, in effect, Google Health fell short on all three factors: scale, ability to use an algorithmic approach to content management and search, and revenue model.  Yes, health represents over 17% of our economy, so scale was still a possibility, but rate of adoption was slow—and was named as the primary reason for discontinuing the service.  Google will continue to reap benefits of health care searches via its advertising programs on its existing online and mobile search engines, but a Google Health product that was defined as a personal health data repository just doesn’t represent a big enough opportunity for Google. 

Like most of the healthcare publishing and health IT community, I was excited when I first heard that Google was establishing a health group.  Note, I first wrote about Google Health in 2006 when Google Health was envisioned as part of the Google Co-op program that had a crowdsourced model that encouraged publishers and subject matter experts to tag healthcare information.  Google Health took several turns during its short lifetime and who knows, it could come back in five or ten years once the healthcare industry grows up to resemble the financial services industry where the majority of customers log on to their computers to manage their accounts.  But, even then, its business model will have to measure up to Google’s broad business objectives for it to have any chance of succeeding.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (3)

Very well done overview. I agree that the present opportunity is not big enough for Google. Regarding your statement that Google Health may return in 5 to 10 years, I offer a framework for when that might occur: http://www.healthtactics.com/Blog/2011/07/05/the-7-stages-of-managing-our-health-information/

July 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Yergan

Steve,
Thank you for the comment. I just read your post on your site and agree that the elements are not yet in place for consumer demand for PHRs to be very strong. And I like your use of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's 7 stages of grief to illustrate how we could get from the current state of affairs to a very different situation. I agree that the growth in high-deductible plans will spur demand for tools to help manage healthcare expenses--and one's own healthcare.

Glad to find your blog via this comment, too!
Janice

July 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

I'm sure if Google sees a way for it to be profitable they'll be back. I wouldn't dare make a prediction though. Much too politicized an arena to make any predictions.

September 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterClara

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>