Whither Google? Report on Google’s Press Day Webcast
Posted On May 15, 2006
From all over the country and, indeed, all over the world, reporters came to Mountain View, Calif., last Wednesday to hear what Google executives had to say about where the company was headed and what new treats it had planned for the world of Web users. Even reporters who did not come to California for Google Press Day participated through a 5-hour Webcast with the option to ask questions via e-mail. (By the way, if you'd like to experience what the Webcast watchers did, just grab your popcorn and aim your Windows Media Player or Real Player at http://investor.google.com/webcast.html.) Many of the reporters asking questions during the meeting wanted to hear about the imminent war of the titans between Google and Microsoft. They were disappointed. Google executives want the company to address all the new and unaddressed problems in the world of search, not "do over again what's already been done." Search, search, and more search is Google's goal. Four new products, all search-oriented, were announced: Google Trends, Google Gadgets, Google Co-op, and Google Notebook.
Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, set the themes. Google intends to continue to focus on search, which constitutes 70 percent of its business, by improving algorithms, improving search tools, and assigning the time and resources, which the company's rapid expansion continues to accumulate, to that task. Schmidt defined the strategy in terms of a 50-year time span. One immediate goal for the coming year, however, is to "systematize" all Google operations around the "metrics of performance." One reporter asking about this component of Google's plans dared to use the word "bureaucracy," a term that Schmidt immediately disclaimed, pledging that the company will continue its flexible, innovative dynamics.
The concept of user-generated content infused Schmidt's remarks in various forms. He views Google as an information industry company, not an information technology (IT) company, and one that will ultimately form a platform for all information businesses. Success in the future, according to Schmidt, will come to companies that not only lead in technological innovation, but also in partnering. Google will expand the role of structured data. When it comes to innovation, Google is in the market for small, smart companies. As for content, Google looks to users to supply growth in that area. As Schmidt put it, "The first rule of information is that people have a lot to say all the time." Identifying expertise and learning from it is a major goal. They expect personalization of Google products to encourage the input of user content as Google evolves its "interactive, collaborative efforts on a global scale." "Create-Remember-Share" seems to be the new mantra at Google.
Now for the Goodies
John Rosenberg, senior vice president for product management, and Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience, described four new products: Google Trends, Google Gadgets (the major new feature of Google Desktop 4), Google Co-op, and Google Notebook. Rosenberg practically gushed about Google Trends (http://www.google.com/trends), a graphic display of statistical analyses of the billions of searches that Google users conduct. Users can construct a strategy and limit it to geographic areas or time spans (months or years). If enough searches have used the terms, Google Trends will graph the popularity of search terms over time with different colored lines rising and falling. Bar charts will show ranking of cities, regions, and languages for the term. If news stories are available, letters point to when specific news stories would have affected activity on the timeline graph. Searchers can link to news stories connected to the terms.
Cool? Yes. But why all the emphasis? Could it be that Google expects to see its Trends graphics become common filler material in news sources everywhere, with appropriate attribution advertising its service at no charge to Google? What better place to initiate such a phenomenon than a Press Day?
Mayer's favorite new product was Google Gadgets (http://desktop.google.com/plugins), a collection of hundreds of mini-applications that reside in Google Desktop version 4. Users can specify which ones they want to add to personalize their own desktops. The Google Gadgets will also work with Google's Personalized Home Page service (http://www.google.com/ig), which was launched in 2005, and the Sidebar. The gadgets will deliver games, media players, Google Video, weather, news, calendars, etc., or just funny looking doohickeys. Mayer loves the Gadget that has two eyeballs that you can make roll on command. In a burst of dangerous enthusiasm, she admitted that she would often roll the eyes on her screen during one of Rosenberg's meetings, when rolling the eyes in her head might not seem politic. One of the Gadgets is a recommendation engine for online shoppers. People interested in building and sharing new Gadgets can use the free Google Desktop Gadgets API (http://desktop.google.com/developer.html) to create new ones.
Version 4 of Google Desktop (http://desktop.google.com), the latest beta release, also supports multiple languages, including French, Italian, German, Spanish, Dutch, and Brazilian Portuguese, with more on the way, along with other localized features for global users. It also now lets users manually re-index their computers and remove deleted files from search results. Network administrators can disable the Search Across Computers option on both consumer and enterprise versions of Google Desktop by blocking access to specific URLs.
The Google Notebook service (http://www.google.com/notebook) was described at the meeting, but it is not scheduled for launch until later this week. Mayer described the service as a kind of digital "super-Post-it," one which could let users clip text, images, and links from pages as they browse, using a box that appears at the bottom right of the screen. Then users could call up the Notebook to full-screen status and annotate the clippings with personal comments, saving them for use later or even making them public for sharing with an online community. (Here comes that user-generated content again.)
The last big goodie—and the most interesting, in my estimation, particularly in line with Google's user-generated content theme—was Google Co-op (http://www.google.com/coop), a service that allows users to build collections of content around different subject themes. At present, the service stands empty waiting for the arrival of committed, energetic, and—one must admit—"content-connected" experts to arrive. But this service could have tremendous impact in our field. (For details and further commentary, see this week's other NewsBreak, "Pick of the Litter: Google Co-op," at http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbreader.asp?ArticleID=15782.)
Was That All?
No Press Day at Google would be complete without the appearance—insert drumroll—of founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Upon their appearance, the questions immediately began rolling in about the putative war with Microsoft. Modest disclaimers of warlike intent ensued as appropriate to the occasion, but when one reporter asked how such proclaimed indifference to Microsoft as a threat jibed with Google's legal challenges to Microsoft's marketing of the latest version of Internet Explorer, Brin alluded to the abuses in Microsoft's past marketing practices, referring to Microsoft—with something between a smirk and a grimace—as "a convicted monopoly."
Another topic that came up at this point in the proceedings concerned the "Net Neutrality" issue. Google's leaders pointed out that they could afford to travel first class, but they bemoaned the effect on those traveling coach. They strongly opposed any such division. Since such a development would probably affect the accessibility of sites that Google Search recommended and even the growth of the Web itself, one could understand their concern. (For details on this problem, read Wallace Koehler's May 1 NewsBreak, " Network Neutrality Under Challenge," at http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbreader.asp?ArticleID=15870.)
However, observing the new services announced by Google on its Press Day, one could see another kind of two-tier service emerging. In the course of pursuing the goals of personalized products and user-generated content, one critical entry point is a Google Account (http://www.google.com/support/accounts) . After all, if the system doesn't know you, how can it personalize your interface? Or track content in your interest areas? Or accept your contributions to content collections? Or let you subscribe to special content streams? All of these new products, except Google Trends, know who uses them and when. The improved service features and enhanced content in these products go to Google's special users.
Not to worry, however. One of the reporters asked the founders how the Web users of the world could be sure that Google truly would "do no evil," pointing out that people who do evil usually don't consider what they're doing evil. Page pointed out that if Google ever started doing evil, it would get caught and suffer dire financial consequences. Apparently Page must have read Alexander Hamilton's writings. Hamilton once wrote, "The best insurance for the fidelity of mankind is to make their interest coincide with their duty."
Google is a work in progress. One might hope that the next Press Day would at least mention Google Scholar once (it was completely omitted this year) or give more than one or two passing references to Google Book Search. But whatever changes come or don't come to Google, one fact should give comfort: Google is definitely in this for the long haul. According to Schmidt, the founders have described the company to him as on a "300-year mission."