In the blissed-out California sunshine, the glistening glass-and-steel curves of the Googleplex seem to sweep you up off the pavement with the promise of a glimpse into the future – and a good time. It is 8am on a Monday morning and battalions of high-tech foot soldiers arrive at the gilded palace of the online revolution. Laptops and lattes in hand, they step off conga lines of biodiesel-powered buses, chatting loud and fast about the latest skyrocketing Silicon Valley start-ups, which have names that sound like Teletubbies: Jajah, Orgoo, Ningo. Geek by geek, they head inside to begin surfing and controlling the quadrillions of bytes of information that surge through Google’s giant servers, and which crash on to our desktops and mobile phones every minute of every day.
The sidewalk outside Google’s corporate headquarters in Mountain View, 40 minutes’ drive south of San Francisco, is about as close as most people get to a company that has cornered the market in internet searching and become the killer app of the modern information economy. For all its success, Google is a closed system, as impenetrable as its complex search algorithms.
Its multibillionaire founders, Sergey Brin, 34, and Larry Page, 34, scarcely do interviews, and reporters rarely make it through the company’s doors to talk to top executives. But the dome-headed maths nerds are facing their first big setback. Suddenly, they need to talk. So, a few weeks ago they invited The Sunday Times into the heart of the search industrial complex.
Google likes to think of itself as “crunchy” – wholesome and worthy – and, walking into the Googleplex, it looks, at first sight, a pretty crunchy kind of place. There’s free coffee and muesli in the No Name breakfast cafe. Everyone gets around the campus on free bicycles. In the car park, the canopies that protect the neat ranks of hybrid Toyota Priuses from the sun are made from solar panels that power each building in the 1.5-million-sq-ft complex. There are swimming pools, massage chairs and free medical checkups. A model of Sir Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo prototype commercial spacecraft hangs from the rafters in the lobby. This is rocket science, after all.
Marissa Mayer is waiting in an anonymous-looking whitewashed conference room in Building 43, the engine room of the search engine. Like all Google key executives, she is annoyingly young –32 – and, even more annoyingly, wealthy – worth hundreds of millions of pounds, thanks to the generous stock options granted to the firm’s founding staff. She does her best to deflect the wealth issue by wearing flats, a studiously plain grey-black dress, and a $50 plastic watch – a combination that shrieks: “I know you know I’m a zillionaire, but please treat me as just one of the girls.”
The young, fast-talking blonde is the firm’s poster girl. It’s her job to sell Google’s vision of a connected future. “We’ve only achieved 2% of what we can do,” she smiles. “The world of search will get much, much bigger.”
Her task used to be really, really easy. Google made cool stuff – the best search engine and some whizzy online services, such as Gmail, Google’s e-mail system – and handed it out free. We grabbed it and told all our friends about it, so they grabbed it too. Google became the most popular internet service in the world. Thanks to its keyword online advertising system that matches ads with search queries, it generated billions – £8 billion last year alone.
But as it prepares to celebrate its 10th birthday, Google has developed serious engine trouble. A series of missteps have left it facing claims that it has gone from a benign project – creating the first free, open-all-hours global library – to the information society’s most determined Big Brother. It stands accused of plotting some sinister link between its computers and us: that it wants, somehow, to plug us into its giant mainframe – as imagined in The Matrix or Terminator.
The crisis began a few months ago when Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, popped up in London and made some extravagant remarks about the firm’s ambitions. He declared that the company’s goal was to collect as much personal data as it could on individual users so that it could improve the quality of its search results and even start making recommendations, like a trusted friend. “We are very early in the total information we have,” he said. “We cannot even answer the most basic question about you because we don’t know enough about you. The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask questions such as ‘What shall I do tomorrow?’ and ‘What job shall I take?’ ”
His comments provoked a firestorm. Right-to-privacy campaigners howled that a machine that knows so much about us that it can tell us what to do would be the biggest-ever threat to personal privacy. No totalitarian regime, no Bond villain had dreamt up anything so creepy. “At what stage,” one critic asked, “did the company whose motto is ‘Don’t be evil’ evolve into the Evil Empire?”
What’s going on? Is Google trying to take over the world’s information and worm its way into our consciousness? When he said he could implant a Google chip in our brain, was Brin not joking, after all? Or have we all got the wrong end of the memory stick?
You only have to spend a few hours in the Googleplex, talking to Mayer and fellow Googleytes, to realise that, if anything, Schmidt was being conservative. Instead of worrying that they are going too far, Google’s top team talk, with poker faces, about a “300-year mission” that will eventually see almost everything – including, perhaps, one day you and me – linked to the web and searchable online.
Google’s techno-dream comes in three bytes. The first is loosely referred to as “universal search”. Scribbling frantically on a whiteboard, Mayer, Google’s head of search products and user experience, says the web is currently “very limited and primitive”. It consists mainly of words, images and some music, mostly created in the last few years. There is much, much more that could – and should – be online. At its simplest level, this includes every film, TV show, video or radio broadcast ever made; every book, academic paper, pamphlet, government document, map, chart and blog ever published in any language anywhere; and any piece of music ever recorded. Google is currently developing new software that will scan millions of new sources of information to give richer search results.
Mayer illustrates the idea by googling her hero, Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, on her PC, which already uses an experimental version of universal search. The results include video news archives, the latest news on the iPhone, highlights of Jobs’s career, and up-do-date news stories. “You get six searches for the price of one,” she says in her curiously giggly voice.
So far, so uncontroversial – but there’s much more. Mayer and co argue that to be true to its mission statement of “organising all the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful”, Google should be about more than searching for words, images and music; it should be about finding objects and, eventually, people. Any item that can be fitted with a radio-frequency identifier – an electronic tag called an RFID – can be linked to the internet over local or national WiFi networks.
Retailers already use this technology for stocktaking, and fleet managers track buses and taxis this way. Why not, asks Mayer, “take the things you care about – your watch, your phone – stick little tags on them and watch for their receiving signals”? This is not a joke. “It would have been really useful to me yesterday when I lost my cellphone while it was out of power. It took me half an hour to find it had fallen behind a dresser.” And why not go one step further and tag your partner or your children, so that you can find out where they are whenever you want? Googleytes point out that we already do this with newborn babies and pets.
The second part of Google’s techno-dream is “personalised search”. Google has just launched iGoogle, a new turbocharged version of its regular search service. It allows Google to monitor our search and web-surfing history, so that it can find out who we are, how old we are, what job we do, whether we are married and have children, where we go on holiday, what we do in our spare time – anything, in fact, that it can glean from our web-surfing, which, since we do so much online these days, means pretty much everything.
Google wants us to sign up for iGoogle on our PC, and also to install it, along with Gmail, Google Maps and Google Earth software, on our mobile phone, so that it knows not just who we are but where we are in the world, 24 hours a day, thanks to the satellite-positioning chips starting to be included in mobile phones. “Our goal is that you can, if you want, search for anything, anywhere, any time,” says Douglas Merrill, 37, Google’s chief information officer.
The final piece of the Google future is called “cloud computing”. Instead of using the internet to search for information that we then copy and use to work on documents stored on the hard drives of our computers, using the software on those computers, Google wants us to create all our documents online, to work on them online using Google’s web-based software, and to store them online on Google’s vast global network of servers.
Google has recently launched its own web-based software programs – called Google Apps – that enable us to create password-protected word files and spreadsheets, edit them and store them online. These applications – along with Gmail, Calendar, Google’s online diary, Picasa, its picture-management and storage system, and Presentations, its online version of PowerPoint – mean Google will provide all our computing and storage needs, not on our PCs but, as Mayer puts it, “in the computational cloud”.
Google’s overall goal is to have a record of every e-mail we have ever written, every contact whose details we have recorded, every file we have created, every picture we have taken and saved, every appointment we have made, every website we have visited, every search query we have typed into its home page, every ad we have clicked on, and everything we have bought online. It wants to know and record where we have been and, thanks to our search history of airlines, car-hire firms and MapQuest, where we are going in the future and when.
This would not just make Google the largest, most powerful super-computer ever; it would make it the most powerful institution in history. Small wonder that the London-based human-rights group Privacy International has condemned its plans as “hostile to privacy”, and EU ministers called Google’s vision “Orwellian”. Even John Battelle, one of the net’s leading evangelists, who co-founded the technology bible Wired magazine, and wrote The Search, the definitive study of Google’s rise, now says: “I’ve found myself more and more wary of Google, out of some primal, lizard-brain fear of giving too much control of my data to one source.”
It all begs one key question: why? What makes a bunch of California geeks who are relaxed enough to spend their lives creating extraordinary products – and then give them away for nothing – suddenly want to take over the world, or at least its information? To Googleytes, the most surprising thing about the row over its plans for the future is that anyone is surprised at all. Its founders have always envisaged a vast super-computer that connects everything and everyone.
Ask Craig Silverstein. He knows because he was there at the beginning, when Brin and Page were graduate students messing about with algorithms at Stanford University, California, when they should have been out getting laid. Silverstein is a man for whom the word “geek” could have been invented. He is young – 34 – thin, has a beard and speaks softly. He does not like to travel more than once a year. He was Google’s first employee and, even though he is now worth £250m, he still turns up to work every day because he “likes solving complex software-engineering problems”.
We meet in another anonymous meeting room with no windows. For a firm that expects us to tell it everything about ourselves, Google is remarkably coy about revealing the simplest information about itself – such as what its executives’ offices look like. Interviews in the executive suite are banned for fear that journalists might uncover its software secrets.
Over coffee, Silverstein, now director of technology, explains that, from the earliest days, Brin and Page envisaged a super-connected computer. “The vision of search has always been broader than has been portrayed in the press,” he says. “We would explain it every chance we got. I don’t think the press misunderstood it. It was just that they were focused on what the users were into at the time.”
He recalls one example that shows that Brin and Page imagined that one day even the smallest “stuff” would be online. “When we were doing the first research, we used to eat in Whole Foods [an organic supermarket chain]. We talked about using search to find out what aisle the salt is on. Instead of having to look at the big signs at the top of each aisle, you could use a search engine to tell you where in the store everything is, and maybe graph it out for you.”
Brin and Page were obsessed with recording, categorising and indexing anything and everything, and then making it available to anyone with internet access because they genuinely believed – and still do – that it is a morally good thing to do. It may sound hopelessly hippie-ish and wildly hypocritical coming from a couple of guys worth £10 billion each, but Brin and Page insist they are not, and never have been, in it for the money. They see themselves as latter-day explorers, mapping human knowledge so that others can find trade routes in the new information economy.
“Google has been trying to democratise information to make it possible for everyone in the world to access the information they need to do the things they need to do,” Silverstein says. Belief in the value of information for its own sake was behind the firm’s highly controversial decision to cave in to demands from the Chinese government for censorship so as to break into the giant local market. Some information, Google reckoned, is better than none.
In spite of the growing public paranoia over its omnivorous intentions, Google is convinced that the more we find out about what it is up to, the more we will agree with it. The man whose job it is to persuade us to live on planet Google is Sep Kamvar, the firm’s head of personalisation. He’s a good choice. The 30-year-old shaggy, flip-flop-wearing, softly spoken surfer dude could not look less Big Brotherish if he tried.
We meet – shock! – in yet another whitewashed conference room. He makes his pitch by first appealing to my wallet. Cloud computing and data storage are free for personal users. If I sign up, I will never again need to spend hundreds of pounds buying software and zip drives to back up my data. Google will do it all for me. The vision of a paperless future – where all documents reside online – sounds tempting. Being tied to a physical PC box is old-school.
Personalisation, Kamvar concedes, sounds “scary” but is in fact designed to help Google to help me. The more he and his fellow Google engineers know about me, the better they can tailor search results to my needs and interests. They can also start making recommendations I might find useful. Kamvar illustrates his point with a simple example: “Say you are in Britain and you’re interested in new restaurants in your area. You search for ‘new restaurants’.
Google, now, will give you information about new restaurants in Britain. If you want new local pizza or pasta restaurants, you have to work through the list searching for the Italian restaurants in your area. It’s inefficient. If, however, you share your web history with Google, it will know that you like Italian food best because you search for it the most, and it will know the area you live. It will move the Italian restaurants in your area up in your search results.”
Putting Google on my mobile phone and tracking my movements is also designed to deliver the best search results. When I search for “new restaurants” on my phone, he tells me, it will automatically put new Italian restaurants at the top in whatever location I find myself – whether it is London or Silicon Valley.
It won’t be long, he adds, before Google will tell me when hot new Italian restaurants open in London without my even asking it to. An early version of Google’s Recommendations service is currently available in the US and Europe. It will soon be extended to cover new jobs, activities and even social networking – so that it can fulfil Schmidt’s dream of telling me what to do tomorrow or which new job to apply for.
Put this way, Google’s vision sounds a little less threatening – but how long will my data be stored for? How do I know that it will not be misused? What’s to stop Google “mining” my search history and files and folders to create a detailed personal profile that it can sell to advertisers who will bombard me with targeted ads? The man who claims to have the answers is Elliot Schrage. The former member of the US Council on Foreign Relations wears the chinos on privacy as Google’s head of global communications and public affairs.
We meet in Charlie’s Cafe. Forget everything you’ve heard about hippies and food. Google has the best canteen in the world. Oyster shuckers shuck Washington State’s finest to order. There are freshly grilled prawns and lobster, and the only lentils are in the Moroccan mezze. Schrage points out that Google has legally binding privacy-protection agreements with its users. If I sign up for iGoogle personalised search, Google formally agrees to safeguard my privacy. To prevent others – rogue or negligent Google employees or hackers – misusing my profile, it is not directly linked to my name.
Only a handful of very senior Google engineers can access my data. Not a single byte will ever be made available – far less flogged – to advertisers. Schrage adds that handing over my personal data is optional.
“We are not forcing you to give us access.” I have to opt in to iGoogle. And even then, I can control how my web use is monitored. I can, if I want, restrict it simply to web searches, rather than all web history. I can delete certain search queries or web pages that I have visited from my search history. If I decide I don’t like the idea of personalised search, I can permanently delete my search history and go back to using Google’s regular search service, where I can be sure none of my personal search or web history will be recorded. Google stores all general search queries for 18 months, but the information is aggregated and not linked to individual users. “We are only the 300lb gorilla in the corner of the room if you want us to be your 300lb pet,” Schrage jokes.
Critics dismiss the measures as ineffective. They point out it is up to me to permanently delete my iGoogle personalised data. Many users will forget, and their personal data will be “out there” for ever. Google, they claim, is experimenting with sending targeted ads to mobile phones. However strict its privacy policies may be, some fear the firm may be forced one day to make public my private data whether it wants to or not and regardless of whether I want it to or not. Competition authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have forced Microsoft to share some of its Windows software with rivals because, regulators argued, Microsoft tried to use its market-dominant system to stifle competition. If Google uses our data to create its own monopoly, regulators might take similar action.
Back in the lobby, the blissed-out California sun is dipping below the horizon, turning the glass-and-steel curves of the Googleplex the colour of burnt sugar. The foot soldiers of the online revolution are heading home, laptops and lattes in hand. I have spent two days inside the black box and Google’s aims are, at last, a little clearer. Google thinks that creating a free-to-use global library and global computer is “a good thing”. But it can only become a really useful library and computer if it knows more about the people that use it: you and me. If we trust it, it can do things for us we could never have imagined, things that Googleytes call “the magic stuff”.
Want every computer in the world to be “our” computer? Sign up for cloud computing. Lost our keys? Google will find them. Want to have an alfresco lunch? Use our Google-enabled phone to view images of our nearest Italian restaurant, check it has a terrace and book a table. Want to know how far our bus is from the bus stop or where the nearest taxi is? Look online. Worried that our child has safely reached school? Google him or her. Search and ye shall find.
The £100 billion question, therefore, is: will we feel comfortable putting our privacy on the line online? Or will fears that we will become slaves to the machine outweigh the desire for a connected future? In spite of the growing furore over privacy, the signs are that we might sign up. iGoogle personalised search is Google’s fastest-growing new product. It already accounts for one in five searches in America. The service has just been launched in Europe, and Google claims the take-up is strong.
Apple’s wildly popular iPhone already uses location-aware Google Maps, and online queues are forming for Google’s soon-to-be-launched suite of mobile-phone applications that will work on any handset. Some of America’s largest firms, including Procter & Gamble and L’Oréal, are already using cloud computing, in the first serious challenge to the dominance of Microsoft Office.
Polls show that, in spite of the recent furore, many web-users here and in the US do not care about privacy. According to a recent study by the Ponemon Institute, a US-based privacy think-tank, 68% of Americans believe that online privacy is important, but only 8% care enough about it to change their online behaviour. Above the din of chattering classes railing against “Googlezilla” can be heard the tip-tap of hundreds of millions of ordinary users willingly signing up to what they consider to be Google’s benign digital dictatorship. What’s another hunk of privacy lost if it makes life easier?
As I walk out of the Googleplex, I notice a new feature by the exit. It’s a giant 3-D computer-generated image of the globe which has giant red lasers shooting up into the sky. Each laser represents the number of Google search queries made at that point on the Earth’s surface. The higher the spikes, the greater the number of queries.
It is supposed to be a celebration of what Google has achieved so far. But it also highlights how much of the world it has already conquered and reveals how much it soon hopes to colonise. It is the perfect metaphor for where that simple little search box we use every day has come from and what its vaulting ambitions are. It does not simply want to be a good search engine on the web: it wants to be the web.
Will it get there? In the end, it’s up to us. Google has only gone from being the most famous misspelling since “potatoe” to a verb recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary because you, me – in fact, almost all of us – use it. If we carry on logging on, it will carry on growing. And growing. If we don’t, it won’t. The choice – the click – is ours.
From a garage to the globe
1997 - Larry Page and Sergey Brin, two 24-year-old Stanford University computer- science graduate students, register the domain name ‘google.com’. The word ‘google’ is an accidental misspelling of ‘googol’, which refers to the number 10 to the power of 100 (or 1 followed by 100 zeros)
1998 - Google becomes a private company and ‘launches’ on the worldwide web. Its headquarters are based in a garage in Menlo Park, northern California
2000 - Google begins to sell ads linked to key search words
2001- 2 Advertising revenue and deep-pocketed venture capitalists help Google to ride out the dotcom crash
2003 - Google expands rapidly, driving internet use and threatening industries as varied as music, newspapers, television, advertising, telephones, travel and pornography
2004 - Google floats on the Nasdaq. Its shares initially sell for £40. Today they fetch more than £300, valuing the company at almost £100 billion
2006 - Google buys YouTube, the largest and most popular video-exchange website
2007 - Google announces its £1.5 billion plan to buy DoubleClick, the leading display-advertising business that also tracks web-users’ search behaviour
What makes google go?
- Two factors explain Google’s extraordinary success – its search-related services and its advertising business. Search brings in the crowds. Advertising brings in the money
- Google dominates the market for search because in 1998 its founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, invented a better way to index and rank web pages
- Before Google, search engines simply looked for keywords and their position on web pages to determine their content and importance. Unscrupulous publishers manipulated the system by filling their pages with popular keywords, usually hidden from view, to earn high rankings in search results
- Instead of analysing the content of each page, Brin and Page devised PageRank, a complex mathematical algorithm that tallied how many other influential sites linked to that page
- The partners reckoned that sites that were ‘well connected’ would be of higher quality. They were right. Google delivered more useful search results than its rivals
- Thanks to PageRank – and dozens of other constantly evolving filtering, classifying and indexing systems – Google is now the most popular internet-search engine. In the US, the world’s biggest online market, Google’s share of queries is around 60%, Yahoo’s 23%, Microsoft’s 12%, Time Warner’s 4.5%. In the UK and much of Europe, Asia and Latin America, Google handles three out of every four search queries
- Google’s second big breakthrough came with its advertising system, called AdWords. When you search for a topic on Google, small paid-for text ads show up next to search results
- While it didn’t invent search-triggered ads, Google figured out a far more efficient way of turning web-users into buyers. Rather than doling out premium space to the highest bidder, as its competitors did, Google used another algorithm to work out how relevant the ad text was to a given query and the odds someone would actually click on it. This meant ads were targeted at the users most likely to respond to them. The result was that Google’s ‘click through’ rate (the number of times users click on ads) was twice as high as its nearest competitor’s. It has captured more than half the search-engine advertising market.
Tags: PageRank, Global IT News, Global IT and Business News, AdWords, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, Marissa Mayer, Craig Silverstein, Stanford, Elliot Schrage, Googleplex, Googleytes, YouTube, Search algorithm,