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Playboy Interview - Google Guys
  • July 27, 2009 : 00:07
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Playboy: Did the outcry about the privacy issue surprise you?

Google Guys: Yes. The Gmail thing has been a bit of a lesson.

Page: We learned a few things. There was a lot of debate about whether we were going to delete people's mail if they wanted it to be deleted. Obviously, you want us to have backups of your mail to protect it, but that raises privacy issues. We created a policy statement about privacy, and the attorneys probably got a little ahead of themselves. The lawyers wrote something that was not very specific. It said something like, "If you request that we delete your e-mail, it may remain on a backup system for a while." It led people to say, "Google wants to keep my deleted mail." That's not our intent at all. Since then we have added some language explaining it. We intend to try to delete it.

Playboy: That's not reassuring.

Google Guys: But you wouldn't want us to lose your mail, either. There's a trade-off. So yes, we learned some things. We could have done a better job on the messaging. In its earliest testing stages Gmail was available only to a small number of people. People started talking about it before they could try it. I didn't expect them to be so interested. We released the privacy policy, and they were very interested in that. It was all they had access to, so it sparked a lot of controversy. The more people tried Gmail, however, the more they understood it.

Brin: Journalists who tried it wrote positive reviews.

Playboy: With the addition of e-mail, Froogle -- your new shopping site -- and Google news, plus your search engine, will Google become a portal similar to Yahoo, AOL or MSN? Many Internet companies were founded as portals. It was assumed that the more services you provided, the longer people would stay on your website and the more revenue you could generate from advertising and pay services.

Google Guys: We built a business on the opposite message. We want you to come to Google and quickly find what you want. Then we're happy to send you to other sites. In fact, that's the point. The portal strategy tries to own all the information.

Playboy: Portals attempt to create what they call sticky content to keep a user as long as possible.

Google Guys: That's the problem. Most portals show their own content above content elsewhere on the web. We feel that's a conflict of interest, analogous to taking money for search results. Their search engine doesn't necessarily provide the best results; it provides the portal's results. Google conscientiously tries to stay away from that. We want to get you out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible. It's a very different model.

Playboy: Until you launched news, Gmail, Froogle and similar services.

Google Guys: These are just other technologies to help you use the web. They're an alternative, hopefully a good one. But we continue to point users to the best websites and try to do whatever is in their best interest. With news, we're not buying information and then pointing users to information we own. We collect many news sources, list them and point the user to other websites. Gmail is just a good mail program with lots of storage.

Brin: Ironically, toward the end of the 1990s most of the portals started as search engines. Yahoo was the exception, but Excite, Infoseek, HotBot and Lycos began as search engines. They diversified and didn't take searching as seriously as they should have. Searching was viewed as just another service, one of 100 different services. With 100 services, they assumed they would be 100 times as successful. But they learned that not all services are created equal. Finding information is much more important to most people than horoscopes, stock quotes or a whole range of other things -- which all have merit, but searching is substantially more important. They lost sight of that. It's why we started Google in the first place. We decided that searching is an important problem that requires serious concentration. That continues to be our focus.

Playboy: What does Google do that early search engines didn't?

Google Guys: Before Google, I don't think people put much effort into the ordering of results. You might get a couple thousand results for a query. We saw that a thousand results weren't necessarily as useful as 10 good ones. We developed a system that determines the best and most useful websites. We also understood that the problem of finding useful information was expanding as the web expanded. In 1993 and 1994, when Mosaic, the predecessor of Netscape, was launched, a "What's New" page listed new websites for the month and then, when more began appearing, for the week. At the time, search engineers had to deal with a relative handful of sites, first thousands and then tens of thousands. By the time we deployed our initial commercial version of Google in late 1998, we had 25 million or 30 million pages in our index. Today we have billions -- more than 4 billion, in fact. That volume requires a different approach to search technology.

Playboy: How do you refine the results when there are so many websites?

Google Guys: We had to solve several problems. One was relevance: How do we determine if a web page relates to what you ask? Next, although many results may be relevant, which are the most relevant and the most useful? That's something we continue to work hard on. Another important consideration is that the kinds of questions people ask have changed. They have become far more challenging and complex. People's expectations have grown. They ask for unusual things that have a variety of associated linguistic challenges. We have to deal with all of those situations.

Playboy: Specifically, how do you deal with them?

Google Guys: It's so complex -- there's not one way but many ways. We worked hard to understand the link structure of the web. It's analogous to the way people provide references to one another. If I'm looking for a doctor in the area, I might go around and ask my friends to recommend good doctors. They in turn may point me to other people who know more than they do -- "This guy knows the whole field of Bay Area doctors." I would then go to that person and ask him. The same thinking applies to websites. They refer to one another with links, a system that simulates referrals. The web is far more expansive and broad, however, so there must be refinements to the system. We have to look at who is doing the referring. It presents a new challenge: How do you decide the importance of the links on a site? We do it with mathematical formulas that go deeper and weigh many factors.

Page: That's a small part of how we actually link pages. It's very complex.

Brin: We have to consider many other challenges. How do you deal with different words that refer to the same concept? How do you help people find websites in languages they understand? Can we translate pages for them? Google is all about getting the right information to people quickly, easily, cheaply -- and for free. We serve the world -- all countries, at least 100 different languages. It's a powerful service that most people probably couldn't have dreamed of 20 years ago. It's available to the rich, the poor, street children in Cambodia, stock traders on Wall Street -- basically everybody. It's very democratic.

Playboy: Tim Berners-Lee, who designed the World Wide Web, worried that commercial content would prevail on the Internet, pushing aside open and free conversation and information from individuals. Does Google have a bias toward commercial websites?

Google Guys: One thing that's important to us is the distinction between advertising and pure search results. We make it clear when something is paid for. Our advertising is off to the side and in a couple of slots across the top. Ads are clearly marked. There's a clear, large wall between the objective search results and the ads, which have commercial influence. Other search engines don't necessarily distinguish. Beyond ads, with other search engines, payment affects the results. We think that's a slippery slope. At Google, the search results cannot be bought or paid for.

Playboy: Will that distinction be protected after the IPO? What if your shareholders push you to accept payment for better placement in search results?

Google Guys: It doesn't make sense. Why don't you, as a magazine, accept payment for your articles? Why are advertisements clearly separate?

Playboy: Our editorial content retains its credibility only if it isn't influenced by advertisers. If that line were unclear, our readers would rebel.

Google Guys: There you go. It's no different for Google. People use Google because they trust us.

Playboy: With search engines, however, the line between editorial content and advertisements may become less obvious than in magazines. As you note, some search engines do not clearly identify results that are paid for. How can users know the difference?

Google Guys: It's a problem for us because some people assume we blur the distinction as well. But people are smart. They can distinguish pure results. We will continue to make it clear.

Brin: It's an important issue, something people should be concerned about. We're dedicated to separating advertising and search results, and we want people to understand the distinction. The more awareness among the entire world's people about these questions -- their ability to understand results that are tainted versus those that are not -- the better. It's not enough for us to improve the search engine so it provides better results from more web pages; we must also protect it from people who attempt to manipulate the results. People try to find ways around our system, and we continue to work on the problem.

Playboy: And yet an entire industry of optimizers seeks to influence Google search results. They claim they can help companies place higher in your rankings, but sometimes they resort to treachery. How do you counteract them?

Google Guys: You have to distinguish among optimizers. Some do perfectly legitimate things -- they're just trying to create informative sites.

Page: They help people find what they're looking for.

Brin: But some people do surreptitious things. They try to influence the system.

Playboy: What are some examples of new techniques people use to influence your search results?

Google Guys: People send us web pages to review that are different from the ones they'll send to users. It's known as cloaking. They'll put stuff on their web pages that the user can't see -- black-on-black text, for example. We consider that manipulative and work to combat it.

Playboy: Playing cat and mouse like this, how can you be sure to stop them?

Google Guys: We have a lot of people devoted to stopping them. We do a good job.

Brin: People try new things all the time. By now, the people who succeed have to be very sophisticated. All the obvious or trivial things one might think of have been done many times, and we've dealt with them.

Page: It's going to get harder and harder to do these things. However, the benefits are obviously large, so some people will try to manipulate the results. Ultimately, it's not worth it. If you're spending time, trouble and money promoting your results, why not just buy advertising? We sell it, and it's effective. Use that instead. Advertising is more predictable and probably more effective.

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