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Is Too Much Plus a Minus for Google?

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

On Tuesday, Google announced something called Search, plus Your World (SPYW). It marked a startling transformation of the company’s flagship product, Google Search, into an amplifier of social content. Google’s critics—as well as some folks generally well intentioned towards Google—have complained that the social content it amplifies is primarily Google’s own product, Google+.

They have a point. With SPYW, the search experience deeply becomes intertwined with Google’s social networking product. You see it in the search box, where the Google+ identity becomes the way to identify a person whose name is in a query. You see it in the search results, where Google+ content is overwhelmingly displayed compared to other social material from Google’s competitors. You see it in a “People and Pages” list–suggestions for connections on Google+–that appears in the same column as Google’s ads.

In short, they say there’s too much Plus and not enough of Our World, which has oodles of content on other social networks.

Let’s take a step back. Is it a good idea for Google to integrate social information into search? The answer, at least in concept, is yes. Google’s mission is to provide all the world’s information. Social information is a big part of that, and Google has been aware for quite some time that its failure to successfully handle the “people” side of its products has been its greatest failure. Google+ was part of a larger initiative to fill this gap. The other part was to make all of Google’s products more social. Including search.

Google CEO Larry Page prepped us for this recently by saying that Google+ was only the first part of Google’s social ambitions—the next step is to “light up” all of Google. As someone who watched the evolution of Google’s social strategy over a year before the release of Google+, I can affirm that this has always been the plan.

But when it came to search, there was a big question: would lots of social results will actually improve search for Google’s users? Do people want their searches full of information about the people they know? Google is convinced that the answer that, too, is yes. According to search quality guru Amit Singhal, it has carefully measured the responses of its users to its existing social search product (one much more modest that SPYW), and found that people respond favorably to search results tagged with connections to people they know. In other words, they click more often on social links, and are “happy” with the results. (Google knows they are happy because they don’t immediately return to the search box to try the same query again.)

The canonical example is that of Singhal’s dog, Chikoo. Previously, if Singhal had typed in the dog’s name into the search box, he’d get nothing but stuff about the tropical fruit by that name. Now, because he is fond of posting pictures of his canine on Google+, he can get doggie content. And since he shares those pictures with people in his family, when his wife does a search for Chikoo, she sees those images, too, and (says Singhal) is delighted to see the family dog in the results. (When I search for Chikoo, I see nothing about the Singhal family pet. As is appropriate.)

Now think about the circumstances that would lead to such a search in the first place. Singhal is going to Google search to look for information about his own dog, the way you or I would use a search engine to look for information about Jessica Biel or Mitt Romney. On first blush this seems odd, to be sure. But Google is always striving for more information in its indexes. It stretched the boundaries its results with its Universal Search product, which brought in media other than web pages, and got some flak for it. But it was the right thing to do, and Google figured out how to do it well. And now we demand images, video, books and other media in search.

Indeed, Google sees SPYW as a similar advance to Universal Search. With the fervor of a recent convert, it believes that social information is a corpus that must be included in search. One day we may marvel that when we searched we didn’t have access to all our social content. Fair enough.

But to really satisfy the user, you need a critical mass of that information to make the searches truly relevant. While there may well be some pictures of your dog on Google+, the bulk of such photos (for those of us who don’t work at Google) are probably be on iPhoto, on Path, and of course on Facebook. But you won’t find them on SPYW. (In a blog item defending SPYW, Google engineer Matt Cutts notes that you can find results from sites like Quora, Twitter and FriendFeed. He even shows how a Flickr photo can appear. But none are as deeply integrated into the product as Google+. And Cutts does not mention Facebook, by far the world’s richest social corpus, in his post.)

Google defends the predominance of Google+ content in its new product by claiming that competitors won’t share. “We always want to provide the most relevant set of results,” Singhal says. “We’re open to working with others. But that information is not available to us. They won’t even let us crawl it.” (And to its credit, Google offers an opt-out function—a toggle switch that lets people see results without social content. Maybe it should have been an opt-in.)

Now that Google has released the product, Eric Schmidt has publicly called for negotiations with social sites to integrate their content in Google search results. But there are competing stories about how much Google really wants to make those deals. Sources close to late 2009 discussions between Google and Facebook tell me that Google had the opportunity to integrate Facebook information in its search results–on the same terms that such content now appears in Bing. But, those sources say, Google refused, on the grounds that it could not technically provide the privacy protections required. Those privacy protections involved restricting social information only to people who users want to share with—basically what Google has now provided for users of its own service. (Google’s head of communications and public policy Rachel Whetstone responds: ” In 2009, we were negotiating with Facebook over access to its data, as has been reported. To claim that the we couldn’t reach an agreement because Google wanted to make private data publicly available is simply untrue.”)

In addition, it seems that in the run up to the SPYW launch, Google didn’t approach social sites and ask them to deeply integrate their services into the new product. To understand why Google may not have been so aggressive in seeking launch partnership, look back at what happened last summer. Google had made a deal with Twitter to get access to the “firehose” of its tweets in real time. Google had devoted considerable resources and effort to launch a real time search product that depended on Twitter content. But last July, Twitter decided not to renew the contract. That basically killed Real Time Search, and Google had to take the embarrassing step of shutting it down. The minds of Mountain View do not want a repeat of this incident. So Google is reluctant to develop new products that put it at the mercy of other providers.

Understandable? Maybe. But it’s counterproductive.

In any case, competitors say that Google could do more without such partnerships. Alex Macgillivray, Twitter’s general counsel and an important early employee in Google’s legal team, says that there was plenty Google could have done to make sure that relevant Twitter content was treated more fairly compared to Google+ content. “In the Google I knew, you didn’t have to have a deal for your stuff to be considered relevant,” he says.

(I don’t want to let Google’s social competitors off the hook. All too often, they regard the personal information users share with them as their own. Obviously, users should be free to dictate where their information should go—including whether information is available to search engines.)

No matter what the reasons, the unbalanced delivery of social content in SPYW is unsatisfying. It’s like a music service starting up with a license with just one label, or a map service going live with under half the terrain depicted. If I’m searching for social content, I don’t want to have to figure out which company is naughty or nice. I just want to find the pictures shared with me, whether they were posted to Facebook or Google+.

Nonetheless, Google decided it was imperative to get its social content into search now. Larry Page is a notoriously impatient leader. Read Google’s just-released quarterly magazine—it’s all about how Google is built for speed and nimbleness. It also boasts that Google is more nimble by shifting from a consensus culture into a command-and-control structure where someone is empowered to give a fricking order to the troops.

Obviously Google’s CEO seems to have concluded that deeply integrating lots and lots of Google+ into search is not a problem. I think Google wants us to see its social efforts not as a direct competitor to Facebook and others, but a core value of the company. By that thinking, Google+ is Google. And search itself is part of Google+.

That’s a heavy concept, and one that’s potentially groundbreaking. If Google is able to leverage the knowledge it accumulates about you, it can deliver much better search results. (Simple example: Google knows you are a vegan. When you search for a restaurant, you won’t see BBQ results!) Google notes that in order to do this, it has to know who you are, and that’s why the Google+ identity is now integrated in search.

But there is a risk to proceeding on this path. The company has spent its entire corporate life protecting the integrity of its search product. When writing In the Plex, I learned that the secret behind Google’s somewhat bland design was that if Google looked like it was designed by a machine, users would implicitly understand that Google search itself was unpolluted by strong opinions. Google meticulously positioned its flagship product as a neutral judge of what was relevant to the user.

Search, in short, should appear to be like Caesar’s wife, above reproach. When using its algorithmic wizardry to deeply integrate social information into its search experience, it behooves Google to avoid even a whiff of bias. With SPYW, though, the odor is unmistakable. No matter how you cut it, the search engine now increases the value of participating in Google+. It may be Google’s right to do this. But it also may turn off a lot of users. And it also provides ammo for Google’s detractors, including those in Washington.

In fact, some people are saying that Google’s move may trigger an antitrust action, and there’s already talk that the FTC is on the case. But you don’t have to get into legal issues to see why Google’s new product as it appears now takes the company into dangerous territory.

Like I wrote — Google is full of Speed Freaks

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

I know, I promised a bigger take on Google’s increasingly controversial Search plus Your World. I’m still assimilating it and gathering information, but it’ll come.

While I’m dragging my feet on that, a word about Google’s lavishly produced Think Quarterly magazine. The theme this quarter is speed. Readers of In the Plex know how important this is to Google, especially to Larry Page. I tell a story in the book where Page mentally measures a product’s speed in milliseconds.

One of the people I spoke to about Google and speed was early Googler Urs Hoelzle. In this issue of Think, Hoelzle outlines what he calls “The Google Gospel of Speed.” He outlines the company’s goals thus:

At Google, we don’t plan on stopping until the web is instant, so that when you click on a link the site loads immediately, and when you play a video it starts without delay.

I bet Google won’t stop even then.

In the Plex also talks at length about how Google tries to maintain startup nimbleness while growing and growing. There’s an interesting essay by Kristen Gil, Google’s VP of Business Operations, in Think Quarterly that describes this, with several bullet points that include Google’s recent shift to more of a command structure. (Something I first noted in my dispatch about Google+ and its origins in Wired.)

Gil also mentions Google’s internal management system called OKR’s but to get the full story on how Google has adopted Andy Grove’s system of Objectives and Key Results (brought to Google by John Doerr), you need to go to (you guessed it)…In the Plex.

Just sayin’.

Did Google Just Pop the Filter Bubble?

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Today Google launched Search plus Your World, a significant change to the flagship product that just about everybody uses every day. It’s a big deal, and Mike Issac has the deets and some analysis. I’ll post something myself on the broader issues later on.

For now, let me note one feature that may be lost in the larger news. Because some people may not want shared items from people on their social graph to intrude with their searches, Google offers a quick opt-out: a button that removes all social results from a search.

But it does more than that. Choosing that option blocks Google from using the history of your previous searches when it provides results. (Google still uses some personalization in choosing results, namely language and location. Otherwise, says Google’s search quality guru Amit Singhal, the results would probably be unsatisfying if not confusing. If you’re really motivated, though, you can plow through some menus and change those settings, too.)

According to the Google blog:

We’re also introducing a prominent new toggle on the upper right of the results page where you can see what your search results look like without personal content. With a single click, you can see an unpersonalized view of search results..

This seems to address the complaint known as The Filter Bubble, as popularized by Eli Pariser’s cogently-argued book of that name. Pariser contends that when Internet providers personalize their services, people wind up seeing only what those providers think they want to see—stuff in their comfort zone. Pariser engages in world-class hand-wringing at the prospect of people exposed only to things they already agree with or are familiar with. Google personalization is his bête noire.

I reached Pariser this morning. He had not heard the news, but I briefed him and he checked it out on Google’s blog. His first reaction (pending a more thorough dive into the feature) was positive. “It’s definitely a big step in terms of transparency and control. It’s kind of awesome to see them do this,” he told me. There are still issues he’s like to look into — does the opt-out also block information like what browser people use?– but at first blush, he says it seemed to really address the concerns he raised in his book.

In one fell swoop, Google might have popped the Filter Bubble.

Why Google Just Can’t Quit the Muppets

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011


It’s no longer news when the company that once famously refused to run commercials does so – another sign of conventionality in the company that promised not to be conventional – but it is still rare enough to be worthy of analysis.

Here is the Google holiday commercial, where the Muppets do a Google+ Hangout.

You get a sense of Google’s strategic priorities by seeing that it’s spending millions to promote Google+. The war for personal information is crucial to Google, and it’s the impetus behind Google+, as I’ve written here. Further information comes in a follow-up interview with Bradley Horowitz, a co-leader of the project.

You get a sense of what works well in Google+ by noting that the focus of the ad is Hangouts, a relatively late addition to Google + that has helped hone its purpose. It’s a cool feature, but also makes a statement: this product is about what’s happening now. Google is well-placed to be a leader in real-time presence, and merging group chat into a social experience has been a win.

But there’s another message, too. You get a sense of Google’s culture—and who the people of Google are—by the choice of the Muppets as the stars of the commercial. Muppets are central to the lives of Googlers. The vast majority of Googlers are people in their twenties and thirties who have completed the perilous obstacle course of the meritocracy, probably starting when their ambitious parents plucked them in front of the telly to absorb the lessons of Big Bird and Count Von Count. (My bet is that many of those parents were otherwise parsimonious with tube time.) Along with the lessons, they bonded with the puppets, much as toddlers get fixated on blankies and stuffed animals.

As a result, even the most math-geeky Googlers kind of melt at the sight of Miss Piggy. It’s not even too much of a stretch to claim that the do-goody ethic of Sesame Street was the forerunner of Don’t Be Evil.

The Muppets keep popping up at the Googleplex.  Google’s very first paid employee, Craig Silverstein, was the founder of the Internet group  rec.arts.henson+muppets

One of the languages included in Google’s translation program is the weird (“bork, bork, pork!”) pidgin of the Swedish Chef from the Muppets Show. .

According to Doug Edwards (in his memoir I’m Feeling Lucky) in Google’s early days, the most important chart on the internal web site was the measure of search quality of various engines. Each line on the chart (representing the effectiveness of a given company in delivering results) was labeled by a Muppet character. Google’s label for itself was “The Great Gonzo.”

Naturally, Google expresses its Muppet-philia in its famous doodles. The Muppets are to the Google home page as guest host Alec Baldwin is to Saturday Night Live. In late 2009, Google decided to run an entire week of doodles to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Muppets.

This year, the Muppets had a movie to promote and the Google connection was never stronger. To introduce its revamped Hangouts (and in a harbinger of the television commercial to come), Google did an introductory Hangout with the Muppets and the human actors in the movie. Google also did a Muppet themed A Google A Day puzzle, with a week of Muppet-related queries, with questions from Kermit, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Sam Eagle and Miss Piggy.

This past September, Jim Henson would have been celebrating his 75th birthday if he lived. So of course Google did another Muppet doodle, this time in collaboration with the Hensen company itself. Jim’s son Brian, took over Google’s Official Blog to write a tribute to his dad. This is part of what he wrote:

Jim was clearly a great visionary. But he also wanted everyone around him fully committed creatively., . . . Every day for him was joyously filled with the surprises of other people’s ideas. I often think that if we all lived like that, not only would life be more interesting, we’d all be a lot happier.

The ethic of Jim Henson as expressed above is totally in synch with Google’s self image.  Google people see themselves as creative folk who make people happy the way Henson made them happy when their parents planted them in front of the television as part of the long march towards high SAT scores. No wonder there’s a gaping disconnect between the way Googlers think about their company and the way critics paint it–not as a high-tech art colony but an overly powerful, privacy-gobbling market dominator.

Considering the deep imprinting of Muppetry on the Google mindset, the tv commercial won’t be the last of the partnership of the Henson’s puppets and the Internet giant. Google will be hanging out with the Muppets for a very long time.

He’s the Eun

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

Today’s news is that David Eun has left AOL to join Samsung.

Eun came to AOL from Google, where he was head of content. His job dealt largely with forging partnerships with big providers (publishing companies, studios, etc.) in that grey area where Google sort of was and sort of wasn’t — providing content. Now everyone knows that Google is firmly in that business, but in a way that augments its core strengths. It would still be a huge surprise if Google bought a newspaper company or a movie studio. Something like Zagat’s is more of a fit. (Reviews are integral to building a product that directs people to local businesses.)

Eun was one of several top execs that Google’s former ad head Tim Armstrong took with him after Armstrong became the CEO of AOL in 2009. Eun’s role was similar for AOL, and it was more central, since portals are all about the kinds of deals Eun makes.

Samsung is something else. Why does it need a content exec? Is Apple envy behind this? Hardware companies not in Cupertino have rarely made a splash in such partnerships. (Sony, of course, took a more balls-out approach some decades ago and bought a music company and a studio. But thinking like a content owner led Sony to shackle its hardware offerings, and thus the company of the Walkman was too timid to go balls-out in its digital products.)

Another Googler who followed Armstrong to AOL was Jeff Levick, who formerly headed Google’s North American sales. Levick is a fun guy who gave me some great stories for In the Plex, which–did I mention this?–is Amazon’s best business book of the year. (So did Armstrong. In fact, Armstrong promised to take me on a sales call to General Motors or a similar big client. But before we did that, he moved to AOL.)

Levick now works for Spotify,

Together these two departures make a couple of points. First, the AOL remake isn’t thriving. (But you knew that.) Second, no matter what tech business you’re in, you’re probably competing with everybody else. Samsung can butt heads with Google, Apple and Facebook in wrangling content. And everyone–TV, magazines, ebooks, search engines, and music services–is in the ad business.

Including AOL, where its CEO has two fewer trusted lieutenants.

The Year of Living Plex-ably

Monday, December 5th, 2011

It’s the end of the year, so people are compiling “best-of” lists.

Not that I’m paying attention.

I hardly noticed that Amazon selected In the Plex as the best business book of the year.

Or that Audible chose the audio version (wonderfully voiced by L. J. Ganser) as the best audio business book of the year.

Or that the Library Journal listed it among its best business books of 2011.

And Kirkus review included it in its list of best non-fiction books of any stripe. (The package links to a smart interview that Kirkus did with me about the book.)

Or that Strategy + Business a worldly publication that every year picks the class of the lot included Plex as one of the top tech-biz books of the year, with the super-smart (and sometime finicky) Michael Schrage calling the book a “superb, surprisingly comprehensive Baedeker of what makes Google Google.”

Not that I’m keeping track. Still, thought you folks should know. Just in case you were shopping for friends and relatives for the holidays

X Marks the Spot

Monday, November 14th, 2011

Nice reporting in New York Times about the secretive Google X division.

Secretive, but not exactly top secret. While Google is very much keeping things under wraps in its long-term research division, there has been wiggle room on its title. I have three business cards from researchers in the division, and all boast the Google X connection. In fact, the “X” in the business card is dropped out, and you can see through the card. One of the cards, belonging to Sebastian Thrun (he of the self-driving car) is made of thin metal.

It’s kind of a joke. When these guys give you a card, you say, “I thought that this doesn’t offiically exist.” And they laugh, or roll their eyes. In any case, considering this, I find it strange that the Times claims that many Googlers are totally in the dark about Google X.

Speaking of the car, it’s breathtaking to consider the Times’ revelation that Google is considering actually manufacturing them. This seems like a stretch even for Google. (But as I write consistently in In the Plex, Larry Page likes to think really big, so who knows? By the way did I mention that Amazon just named In the Plex as the best business book of 2011? Just sayin’)

The article reports what has been clear for a while: Sergey Brin is focusing on his X files. When Larry became the CEO designate last January, the two co-founders did kind of a switch. Larry had been most interested in the long-term stuff, but moved away from that. Literally, as he transplanted his office to the area where Emerald Sea (now known as Google+) was being developed. Sergey, who had an office in the Emerald Sea building, moved out. In his public appearances this year, he’s been talking glowingly of the X stuff, and has promised we would see something big from that in the coming months.

Literally, this is the X factor in Google. What comes out of this division may be a brand new multi-billion dollar business. Or not. That’s what rolling big dice is all about.

Why the Motorola Mobility Deal is like the Google Book Search Settlement

Friday, August 19th, 2011

Over the past few days I’ve been asked a lot about why Google addressed a patent problem with what seemed like overkill—a $12.5 billion acquisition of a handset company that almost doubles the size of the company and puts Google deep in the seemingly unattractive business of being a hardware manufacturer. I tell people the following story, as accounted in my book In the Plex.

Google was in the early stages of setting up engineering centers overseas. It wasn’t quite clear how extensive the effort would be. In an executive meeting with company’s key leaders, Larry was asked how many engineers Google should eventually employ.

“How many does Microsoft have?” he asked. He was told that Microsoft employed about 25,000 engineers.

“Then we should have a million,” said Page.

Google didn’t embark on a million-engineer march after that, but the reply is utterly typical of a Larry Page response. Time after time, Googlers describe Page’s critiques, with one common element: Page’s unhappiness that the plans were insufficiently ambitious. You suggest a toothpick to Larry, and he immediately thinks forest. That’s the way he is, and because he is that way, it is no accident that Google is so prominent as a business and in our lives. And you better believe that Larry Page wants Google to be a much bigger business that’s even more prominent in our lives.

That’s why it made utter sense to me that Google would try to dig itself out of its patent hole with a plan that wound up to encompass much more than the problem itself. After being rebuffed in its efforts to nab an expensive patent portfolio to defend Android against “bogus” (in David Drummond’s phrase) claims, it decided not only to get a better portfolio but an entire company and new business model as well.

During the conference call explaining this purchase, Google send some mixed signals as to what it would do with Mobility. Page vowed that it would be a “separate business.” But he also said that he was excited about the possibilities that it opened for Google, to innovate in hardware. This is somewhat of a contradiction. Every year, Google chooses one model from one handset manufacturer as its “lead device,” the chosen (temporary) flagship phone. That company moves its people in with Googlers to create a device that integrates the latest in hardware with the latest in Android OS. Android Czar Andy Rubin said that Google’s new division would compete for this plum on an equal footing with the Samsungs and HTC’s of the world.

How is Google going to handle this? Does he think that if, in a given year, Google-ola wins the contest, the other partners won’t suspect a fix? Conversely, if Google does keep its new division at arms-length from the Android folks, wouldn’t that be hampering its new investment?

People have also been asking me whether, if the acquisition goes through, the Motorola division will become “Googly.” It’s a good question. Currently that division has 19,000 employees. That’s nearly doubling the size of a company that’s obsessed with not falling prey to the stodginess of being a big company. My view is that Google won’t cope with this problem by regarding its new prize as something outside the Google-sphere. Google has specific ideas of how a company should run, what its culture should be, what kind of employees it wants. Why would it disregard those when it comes to Motorola? Google is a disruptive company—so we should expect it to be disruptive when it comes to future products from Google-ola. Business models too. Maybe Google will figure out a way to give away moto-phones, calculating it will wind up profitable on the back end. (Maybe that’s what Page meant when he cited “an opportunity to accelerate innovation in the home business by working together with the cable and telco industry as we go through a transition to Internet protocol.”) Hard to predict what Page and Google will do, but it would be uncharacteristic not to be startling and disruptive.

One thing does bother me here, and that is a parallel to Larry Page’s response to the challenges of Book Search, when he busted open an impasse between Google and the authors and publishers by embracing a larger solution—the class action settlement. The impetus behind both actions was a problem not rooted in technology or a user need, but an externality that stifled innovation and the user’s benefit. In the book case it was an arcane copyright system that prevented Google and anyone else from pursuing a course that would have brought fantastic benefit to civilization. In the mobile area it was an arcane patent system that assured that only established players with mighty portfolios would have the sufficient legal protection to produce a smart phone.

In other words, both bold solutions came from a poison seed. The Book Search Settlement wound up getting bounced in court for its overreach. Google undoubtedly hopes that its Mobility purchase has a better fate.

The Epic Story Behind Google’s Social Plans

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

No, not here.

It’s here.

Close readers of IN THE PLEX could intuit that I had access to the team behind Emerald Sea, the codename for Google’s social product. It wasn’t done when the book was, so I couldn’t share the details. The essential components are out today, so I was finally able to tell the story behind what is now called Google+.

In one sense, following up on this to deliver the long story I dropped today was a great way to gently decompress after my immersion into Google for the book. I still had a reason to go on campus and talk to a team of Googlers and see what they were up to.

So will it succeed? Depends on a lot. But from the start I was surprised at the degree of urgency in this project. There was a lot of twists and turns before today and undoubtedly there will be more. And I’ll keep watching.

Who Do You Trust? Who Do You Anti-Trust?

Friday, June 24th, 2011

I’ll weigh in later on with some views on the FTC’s now-confirmed probe of Google. For now, let me flick at just one data point. The author of Google’s blog item that acknowledged that it had received government subpoenas–and launched a general defense of Google practices–was not a lawyer. It was an engineer. Specifically, Amit Singhal, a world-class computer scientist who has been sort of the search quality guru at the company for a number of years. He is also utterly captivating when he describes the intricacies of Google’s algorithmic quest for relevant results. This may indicate the tenor of its eventual defense– Google is putting forward its face as data-driven, scientific, and non-judgmental in its treatment of search results.

Much more to come….