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Playboy Interview - Google Guys
  • July 27, 2009 : 00:07
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Playboy: Yet it may not carry the weight of a search that appears to be unaffected by money.

Google Guys: Yes. So people will try, and we will continue to stop them. Eventually people may realize that it's more efficient just to pay to promote their things, if that's what they want to do.

Brin: That's absolutely true, because ads on Google work. We know that when people are looking for commercial things, they use the ads. They know they're ads and they know they're just commercial, yet they use them.

Playboy: How do you fight Google bombing, a tactic some people use to manipulate search results by linking words? For instance, if they have their way, the query "world's dumbest man" might lead you to the White House web page.

Google Guys: That's in a different category. We call it spam but not in the sense of e-mail. People try to make political statements using search results. They want to affect the results when you search for something obscure and specific, say "French military victories." They get tons of people to link the phrase to a website that pushes their political point of view. These queries are rare. The number of people interested in French military victories is tiny. There may be no other websites dedicated to that topic, so people create a page with the idea of controlling a message.

Page: People do it because it's like discovering fire: "We can affect the web!" Well, you are the web, so of course you can affect it.

Brin: Typically Google bombs don't affect people looking for information.

Page: They're more like entertainment.

Playboy: How can you balance the more modest sites of nonprofits or consumer groups with those of enormous companies and industries? If we research a controversial topic, how can Google be certain to point us to sites that reflect both sides of an issue?

Google Guys: I agree that diversity of sources is a desirable goal, and in fact the results naturally tend to be diverse. We do some simple things to increase the diversity. If you check almost any topic, you will get diverging viewpoints. Everyone on any side of an issue will typically complain, though. Environmentalists will say, "Why aren't you showing our results first?" An industrial group will say, "Why aren't you showing our results first?" They all want to be number one. We think it's good for us to encourage diverse viewpoints, and the search engine presents them. It happens naturally as a response to queries.

Playboy: But don't companies with enormous budgets have the ability to pay for deep sites with lots of links and overwhelm the opposition?

Google Guys: Actually, given the factors the search engines take into consideration, opposition groups do well in search results. For example, environmental groups tend to be very active on the Internet. That's how they organize. They have good websites with a lot of activity. All of that is factored into the search results. Thus their sites will be prominent in the listings.

Brin: Yes. On such a search, you would likely get the best environmental sites as well as the best sites representing the industry, for two sides of the issue. I'm sure there are counterexamples, and I'm sure we could do a better job.

Page: In general we're trying to use the web's self-organizing properties to decide which things to present. We don't want to be in the position of having to decide these things. We take the responsibility seriously. People depend on us.

Playboy: Yet you've been criticized for caving to pressure from organizations that objected to some of your search results. In one famous case, the Church of Scientology pressured you to stop pointing out a website critical of it.

Google Guys: That was more of a legal issue.

Brin: The Scientologists made a copyright claim against an anti-Scientology site. It had excerpts from some of their texts. The counter-Scientology site, Xenu.net, didn't file an appeal. It sort of folded. Consequently, we were forced to omit their results, but we explain what happened on the search. If things are missing from a search, we often link to websites that explain the controversies. So now, if you do a generic search on Scientology, you get a link to a site that discusses the legal aspects of why the anti-Scientology site isn't listed. In addition, this independent site links to the anti-Scientology site. As a result, if you search for Scientology, you will be armed with anti-Scientology material as well as pro-Scientology material.

Page: A Stanford University organization has volunteer lawyers posting complaints about cases like this related to web searches. We're able to link to this site. It's a nice compromise. In general, though, few things get removed in this way. It's not a practical problem.

Playboy: How did you respond when the Chinese government blocked Google because your search engine pointed to sites it forbade, including Falun Gong and pro-democracy websites?

Google Guys: China actually shut us down a couple of times.

Playboy: Did you negotiate with the Chinese government to unblock your site?

Google Guys: No. There was enough popular demand in China for our services -- information, commerce and so forth -- that the government re-enabled us.

Playboy: Have you ever agreed to conditions set by the Chinese government?

Google Guys: No, and China never demanded such things. However, other search engines have established local presences there and, as a price of doing so, offer severely restricted information. We have no sales team in China. Regardless, many Chinese Internet users rely on Google. To be fair to China, it never made any explicit demands regarding censoring material. That's not to say I'm happy about the policies of other portals that have established a presence there.

Playboy: Which sites cooperate with Chinese government censors?

Google Guys: I've heard various things, but I don't want to spread secondhand rumors. There is a Harvard site that lists what you can and can't get from different places around the world.

Page: Search for "censorship" and "Berkman" and you can get the website. [Editor's note: The website is at cyber.law.harvard.edu/home] It has some cool programs that automatically track what is and isn't available on the web.

Playboy: What would you do if you had to choose between compromising search results and being unavailable to millions of Chinese?

Google Guys: There are difficult questions, difficult challenges. Sometimes the "Don't be evil" policy leads to many discussions about what exactly is evil. One thing we know is that people can make better decisions with better information. Google is a useful tool in people's lives. There are extreme cases, we're told, when Google has saved people's lives.

Playboy: How has Google saved lives?

Google Guys: When people look up information in a life-threatening situation. Someone wrote that he was having chest pains and wasn't sure of the cause. He did a Google search, decided he was having a heart attack and called the hospital. He survived and wrote to us. To help in situations like that, Google has to be quick and correct. Other people have written us with similar stories. We get postcards and pictures of them with their family. Those are extremes, but there are countless other examples. People are helped with their careers. Students are helped when they study. It's a powerful tool.

Playboy: When someone is having chest pains and searches the web for information about them, for example, it's essential that the information be correct. How does Google know about the veracity of a website's information?

Google Guys: Similar to other media -- books, magazines, whatever -- you have to use judgment.

Playboy: But isn't the Net, where anyone can put up a web page, more likely to have erroneous information?

Google Guys: Yes. Joe Blow can write something in a few hours, post it and it's on the Net. It could be about neuroscience, and he may know nothing about neuroscience. More typical inaccuracies in other media are from out-of-date material. In both cases, you have to apply judgment. The Internet helps because you can quickly check a number of different sources. If I were seriously interested in something important to me, I wouldn't just click on the first search result, read it and take it as God's word.

Page: Which is a great thing about the Internet, because you can read information from many sources and decide. Libraries might have some of the information but probably not all -- and not necessarily the most up-to-date.

Playboy: Librarians must hate Google. Will you put them out of business?

Google Guys: Actually, more and more librarians love Google. They use it. They do an excellent job helping people find answers on the Internet in addition to using their book collections. Finding information still requires skill. It's just that you can go much further now. Google is a tool for librarians just as it's a tool for anyone who wants to use it.

Playboy: Much has been made of the fact that Google has now become a verb. When did you begin to fathom the scale of Google's success?

Google Guys: I don't remember exactly. Pretty early on I saw a newspaper story about Googling dates. People were checking out who they were dating by Googling them. I think it's a tremendous responsibility. If you think everybody is relying on us for information, you understand the responsibility. That's mostly what I feel. You have to take that very seriously.

Playboy: Are you still surprised by the ways people use Google?

Google Guys: We hear surprising stories all the time. The amazing thing is that we're part of people's daily lives, like brushing their teeth. It's just something they do throughout the day while working, buying things, deciding what to do after work and much more. Google has been accepted as part of people's lives. It's quite remarkable. Most people spend most of their time getting information, so maybe it's not a complete surprise that Google is successful.

Playboy: Though you have cataloged 4 billion websites, there are more than 10 billion, and the number grows each day. Is it possible for Google to catch up and keep up?

Google Guys: We have to. The increasing volume of information is just more opportunity to build better answers to questions. The more information you have, the better.

Playboy: Yet more isn't necessarily better.

Google Guys: Exactly. This is why it's a complex problem we're solving. You want access to as much as possible so you can discern what is most relevant and correct. The solution isn't to limit the information you receive. Ultimately you want to have the entire world's knowledge connected directly to your mind.

Playboy: Is that what we have to look forward to?

Google Guys: Well, maybe. I hope so. At least a version of that. We probably won't be looking up everything on a computer.

Playboy: How will we use Google in the future?

Google Guys: Probably in many new ways. We're already experimenting with some. You can call a phone number and say what you want to search for, and it will be pulled up. At this stage it's obviously just a toy, but it helps us understand how to develop future products.

Playboy: Is your goal to have the entire world's knowledge connected directly to our minds?

Google Guys: To get closer to that -- as close as possible.

Playboy: At some point doesn't the volume become overwhelming?

Google Guys: Your mind is tremendously efficient at weighing an enormous amount of information. We want to make smarter search engines that do a lot of the work for us. The smarter we can make the search engine, the better. Where will it lead? Who knows? But it's credible to imagine a leap as great as that from hunting through library stacks to a Google session, when we leap from today's search engines to having the entirety of the world's information as just one of our thoughts.

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