What Google needs now? To wow again

March 13, 2012, 3:06 PM UTC

By Kevin Kelleher, contributor

FORTUNE – When was the last time Google did something dazzling?

For a company that turns 14 this summer, Google (GOOG) has a history thick with moments when it surprised the web — many outlined on the company’s site, starting in 2000, when its search engine became the world’s largest. Adwords and Adsense were also innovations that, while less visible to consumers, had a significant impact. Through the years, Google unveiled or acquired other features that the set a high standard for innovation on the web: Google News, Earth, Voice, Books, Translate as well as Blogger and YouTube – even features like Ngram Viewer and self-driving cars that had no real potential for new ad revenue but that invited you to waste hours exploring the data they organized.

But since Ngram, which appeared in late 2010 and allowed users to visualise the rise and fall of concepts, Google hasn’t really unveiled a product that’s wowed the world and gotten people talking. Over the past year or so, it’s introduced products that replicate what other companies have innovated. Google+ may try to improve on Facebook, but it mostly copies it. Google Play, announced last week, seems like a knockoff of Apple’s (AAPL) iTunes.

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And that’s been the case with many of the features Google has been rolling out for a while. Google Offers looks like a viable competitor to Groupon (GRPN) and LivingSocial, but that’s just it: it’s a competitor to an established leader. Google tried to buy Groupon, which would have made Google the leader in the daily-deals market, but the company said no. So now Google is just one of many players in a crowded market.

In other areas, Google is launching new features that echo what other companies are doing. With Google Wallet, Google had an early lead in the market for mobile payments using near-field communication. But Wallet was available to a small number of people, and companies like Intuit (INTU), Apple and Visa (V) are working on rival offerings.

Of course, taking on established business models on the web isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Google’s early success came by building a better search engine. And Google Docs presented a significant challenge to Microsoft’s (MSFT) Office, forcing the company to rethink its strategy with the productivity software. But initiatives like Google+, Offers and, most recently, Play don’t dramatically improve on their rivals. They look more like a company sticking its fingers into a bunch of growing markets and hoping for the best.

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Google has good reasons for moving in this direction. Since becoming CEO, Larry Page has focused the company’s efforts on core products, leaving employees with less time to fiddle around with new ideas. Last summer, Page shut down Google Labs, the incubator for innovative ideas that often generated more curiosity than revenue. Instead, Google worked on integrating its more popular features into a new site built around the Google+ social layer.

Because 95% of Google’s revenue still comes from ads (the rest is from subscriptions and things like Google Apps), that focus makes sense for now. Google is stitching its empire of services and features — search, video, e-commerce, mobile and, yes, social — into an integrated property. Google has reportedly seen that, even if people aren’t actively using their Google+ profiles, they can still increase ad engagement rates.

But Google future success will rely on more than its new-found focus. It will also require the company reclaiming some of the innovative swagger it had when Eric Schmidt was CEO. In an interview last year, Schmidt recalled how Page and Sergey Brin “spent a lot of time on stressing this, on having original ideas — if you had an idea that was copycat you were derided.” Google can’t afford to abandon that spirit for too long.

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It may be that Page knows this. After all, there is a historical analogy in Google’s onetime ally and now rival Apple. When Steve Jobs was reappointed as CEO there, he simplified the company’s operations before focusing on new products. Whatever Page’s strategy, it won’t help Google if its brand ceases to be synonymous with new ideas that can surprise users.