This is a condensed version of a story in Fast Company magazine’s April issue, on newsstands soon. For the full version, visit FastCompany.com.
It’s not Helen of Troy or the assassination of an archduke, but this 10-cent word launched the Great Search Engine War of 2011, between Google and Microsoft.
When Google’s search team figured out how to offer the results it would return for tarsorrhaphy after a user typed in “tarsoraphy,” it was a quiet-but-important upgrade for the company’s most important, and most-taken-for-granted, product. “But then we noticed something very puzzling,” says Amit Singhal, the jovial head of Google’s search-ranking team. Just a few weeks later, Microsoft’s competing search engine, Bing seemingly had the same breakthrough with the same word.
(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
Singhal authorized what’s now known, in the blogosphere at least, as the “Bing sting,” in which Google engineers manually inserted meaningless results for about 100 nonsensical queries (things like “hiybbprqag” and “indoswiftjobinproduction”) into their own search results. A few weeks later, some of Google’s fake search results began to show up on Bing. Singhal and his team gave the scoop to blogger and search-engine guru Danny Sullivan to run on the day of a panel discussion featuring Bing and Google. It became the biggest news in tech.
Coincidentally, it came less than two weeks after the company announced that cofounder Larry Page would become CEO on April 4. Although Singhal insists that the sting was the search team’s idea (he will admit that Page knew about it), the high-profile dig seems to exhibit all the hallmarks of the new CEO’s approach to business. It was a creative solution to a sticky problem, it was rooted in data, it was ambitious — and it was prankish to boot.
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To outsiders, Page might seem an odd choice to be CEO. He’s an introvert. We won’t be seeing him keynoting A-list conferences or sitting down for intimate conversations with the press (Google declined to make him available for this article). But after talking to high-level Google executives who work closely with Page, as well as ex-Googlers and other outside observers, a picture begins to emerge of how the search company will change under him. Here’s our seven-part guide to how:
1. A little top-down leadership goes a long way
For much of its early life, Google reveled in its bottom-up culture. The governing philosophy was “Let’s hire lots of really smart people and let them do whatever they want,” says Brian Kennish, a Google engineer from 2003 to late 2010. Employees — especially engineers — ere given unparalleled leeway in deciding what they wanted to work on and encouraged to use 20 percent of their time to come up with new ideas.
The archetypal product of this era was Gmail, which was born when engineer Paul Buchheit hacked it up in a single day in the summer of 2001. Among other products conceived deep within the company’s ranks were Google News, search suggestions and AdSense, the contextual advertising system that accounted for nearly $9 billion in revenue in 2010.
Android represents a new order, one that Page, who has long played a role in product strategy, will accelerate. Page gave Andy Rubin, Android’s indomitable chief, the resources to run the division as an autonomous unit. Their ambition helped Google settle on a course to release an entire operating system, rather than a single phone. By some measures, Android has already surpassed Steve Jobs’s iPhone. According to comScore, Android’s smartphone market share now lags only Research in Motion’s BlackBerry, and Android’s share is growing faster than that of all of its competitors, including Apple. Gene Munster, an analyst at Piper Jaffray, estimates that by 2012, there will be more than 130 million Android users around the world. Those teeming hordes will generate more than $1 billion in ad revenue for Google.
2. Spur on your ‘Frenemies’
Google needed its own web browser, called Chrome, to goad Microsoft, Apple, and other browser makers into reigniting innovation in what had become a moribund market, which is good for Google and its ad business. Even if its rivals merely copied Chrome’s advancements — superfast, stable, and, thus far, impossible to hack — Google saw that it could achieve its larger goals. About 10 percent of web surfers now use Chrome, which is respectable, but not as important as pushing Microsoft to retire the decrepit IE 6 browser in favor of new versions with a string of great improvements.
Expect Page to launch even more initiatives that may seem futile when considered alone but that are, in fact, designed to wake up drowsy competitors.
3. When in doubt, check the data
Deciding questions by data is to Google what eye-catching design is to Apple, or what global supply-chain management is to Walmart. It forms the spine of every major decision, and nearly every minor one. Data’s preeminence in Google’s culture helps prevent anyone at the company from pulling rank. It also wards off resistance to change. This will only become more important as Page takes over as the top decision maker at a company whose core search algorithm, PageRank, is named for him.
Even Page has proven willing to reverse himself if the numbers don’t bear him out. “Larry would wander around the engineers and he would see a product being developed, and sometimes he would say, ‘Oh, I don’t like that,'” recalls Douglas Merrill, who served as Google’s chief information officer until 2008. “But the engineers would get some data to back up their idea, and the amazing thing was that Larry was fine to be wrong. As long as the data supported them, he was okay with it. And that was a such an incredibly morale-boosting interaction for engineers.”
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4. When in creative mode, don’t start with data
There is a dark side to Google’s data-centric approach. “When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems,” wrote Douglas Bowman, Google’s first lead designer, on the occasion of his 2009 resignation. “Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. … And those data eventually become a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.”
As Google grows into more arenas where engineering alone can’t carry the day, most notably in social and handheld interfaces, Page will have to tweak this data-driven mind-set to embrace more creative types if the company is to thrive.
Google historically had a spirit of joy about it, from its clever Doodler riffs on the home-page logo to its role in transforming April 1 into a riot of web foolishness. Google can express that spirit in its products, too. And indeed, that may be happening. Hit the lock button on the Nexus S, Google’s latest Android phone, and the screen zaps to black slowly, in the pattern of an old tube television. You’ll smile the first time you see it, and when your Mac-head friends show off the iPhone 4’s sleek “retina display,” you can thrill them with your little lock-screen trick. Sure, it’s small, but there’s something engagingly warm and human about the effect. Someone at Google decided to put a gag in my phone. That’s so cool!
5. A social life is overrated
Larry Page isn’t on Facebook. He doesn’t trade one-liners on Twitter. Page’s apparent lack of personal interest on the web’s major social sites creates a convenient narrative for Google’s dreadful record in the space — a string of failures that include Dodgeball, Jaiku, Lively, Buzz and Wave.
Google insists that social-networking sites do not constitute a major threat to its advertising businesses. But that’s not to say Google is giving up on social. Far from it. Its success relies on understanding how the web works, and the web is getting more social all the time. Google has continued to acquire social startups — ost recently Slide for $228 million (not to mention its rumored interest in buying Twitter for $10 billion). According to sources, Google isn’t planning a Facebook clone but rather it intends to roll out new social features across all its products. In February, it unveiled the first of these changes, an update that ranks some results according to what your friends have shared online. It’s a classically Pageian effort to solve a problem by attacking it from an unexpected angle (see Android versus iPhone): If Google can’t compete with Facebook directly, perhaps it can render Facebook moot by making everything else on the web feel like Facebook.
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6. Listen up: Talk is cheap
It’s not entirely true that Google is an advertising company that doesn’t advertise (recall the 2010 Super Bowl ad impress a french girl”?). Search for keywords related to Google products — smartphone, e-mail — and you’ll find Google has purchased the same search ads that it sells customers. But with brand advertising, the company’s resistance has been deeply cultural. Persuasion offends Google’s — and Page’s — meritocratic beliefs. The company became the biggest search engine in the world because it built a better product, not because it created better TV ads than Yahoo.
With its new CEO an introvert, perhaps Google will never tap its inner Apple. But maybe, in the bigger picture, that’s a trade-off worth making. Even if the company relies less on 20 percent time for unfettered product development, Page’s personal style is likely to keep new ideas flowing. The key for Page is to “surround himself with some extroverts,” says Wharton management professor Adam Grant. “Extroversion and introversion are the only personality traits where you need a balance between the two to be an effective team.” As the success of the Bing sting indicates, Page seems to be listening to his extroverts in embracing a bolder public profile — not for himself, but for Google.
7. No goal is too big (and some are too small)
Franz Och oversees Google’s machine-translation system, a spectacularly ambitious effort that analyzes text found on the web to create statistical models that can transform one language into another. Google’s project, which began in 2004, has succeeded far beyond what most experts thought possible. Including Och. Google spent a year trying to recruit him; each time, he explained to Page and other execs that what they were asking for couldn’t be done.
“They were very optimistic, and I tried to tell them to be cautious,” he says. “It’s really complicated, extremely expensive, and you need very large amounts of data.”
That audaciousness — the ambition to tackle a seemingly unsolvable problem with deep reservoirs of money and data — is the ultimate insight into what makes Google Googley. “When people come to Larry with ideas, he always wants it bigger,” says one ex-Googler. “His whole point is that only Google has the kind of resources to make big bets. The asset that Larry brings is to say, ‘Let’s go and make big things happen.'”
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