Best Innovation in Google Innovation,On Tuesday morning, January 21, the world awoke to nine new words on the home page of Google Inc., purveyor of the most popular search engine on the Web: "New! Take your search further. Take a Google Tour." The pitch, linked to a demo of the site's often overlooked tools and services, stayed up for 14 days and then disappeared.
To most reasonable people, the fleeting house ad seemed inconsequential. But imagine that you're unreasonable. For a moment, try to think like a Google Innovation engineer — which pretty much requires being both insanely passionate about delivering the best search results and obsessive about how you do that.
If you're a Google engineer, you know that those nine words comprised about 120 bytes of data, enough to slow download time for users with modems by 20 to 50 milliseconds. You can estimate the stress that 120 bytes, times millions of searches per minute, put on Google's 10,000 servers. On the other hand, you can also measure precisely how many visitors took the tour, how many of those downloaded the Google Toolbar, and how many clicked through for the first time to Google News.
This is what it's like inside Google. It is a joint founded by geeks and run by geeks. It is a collection of 650 really smart people who are almost frighteningly single-minded. "These are people who think they are creating something that's the best in the world," says Peter Norvig, a Google engineering director. "And that product is changing people's lives."
Geeks are different from the rest of us, so it's no surprise that they've created a different sort of company. Google is, in fact, their dream house. It also happens to be among the best-run companies in the technology sector. At a moment when much of business has resigned itself to the pursuit of sameness and safety, Google proposes an almost joyous antidote to mediocrity, a model for smart innovation in challenging times.
Google's tale is a familiar one: Two Stanford doctoral students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, developed a set of algorithms that in 1998 sparked a holy-shit leap in Web-search performance. Basically, they turned search into a popularity contest. In addition to gauging a phrase's appearance on a Web page, as other engines did, it assessed relevance by counting the number and importance of other pages that linked to that page.
Since then, newer search products such as Teoma and Fast have essentially matched Google's advance. But Google remains the undisputed search heavyweight. Google says it processes more than 150 million searches a day — and the true number is probably much higher than that. Google's revenue model is notoriously tough to deconstruct: Analysts guess that its revenue last year was anywhere from $ 60 million to $ 300 million. But they also guess that Google made quite a bit of money.
As a result, there is constant, hopeful speculation among financiers around an initial public offering, a deal that could be this decade's equivalent of the 1995 Netscape IPO. A few years back, such a deal might have valued Google at $ 3 billion or more. Even today, a Google offering might fetch $ 1 billion.
For now, though, most of the cars in the lot outside Google's modest offices in a Mountain View, California office park are beat-up Volvos and Subarus, not Porsches. And while Googlers may relish their shot at impossible wealth, they appear driven more by the quest for impossible perfection. They want to build something that searches every bit of information on the Web. More important, they want to deliver exactly what the user is looking for, every time. They know that this won't ever happen, and yet they keep at it. They also pursue a seemingly gratuitous quest for speed: Four years ago, the average search took approximately 3 seconds. Now it's down to about 0.2 seconds. And since 0.2 is more than zero, it's not quite fast enough.
Google Innovationunderstands that its two most important assets are the attention and trust of its users. If it takes too long to deliver results or an additional word of text on the home page is too distracting, Google risks losing people's attention. If the search results are lousy, or if they are compromised by advertising, it risks losing people's trust. Attention and trust are sacrosanct.
Google Innovation also understands the capacity of the Web to leverage expertise. Its product-engineering effort is more like an ongoing, all-hands discussion. The site features about 10 technologies in development, many of which may never be products per se. They are there because Google wants to see how people react. It wants feedback and ideas. Having people in on the game who know a lot of stuff tells you earlier whether good ideas are good ideas that will actually work.
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