What Would Google Do? / What Does Google Do?

February 6, 2009
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This evening, I had the opportunity to hear Jeff Jarvis talk about his recently published book, “What Would Google Do?“. That opportunity was briefly in doubt: 277 people signed up for the event at the Daylife office, which had planned for a capacity of 150. Fortunately for me, my friend Ken Ellis let me in early, and I was not turned away at the door. Which is fortunate for you, since it means I have something to blog about!

Jarvis was entertaining, as expected. He is an excellent speaker, both when he’s delivering prepared material and when he’s put on the spot by aggressive audience members, who were in no short supply…

This evening, I had the opportunity to hear Jeff Jarvis talk about his recently published book, “What Would Google Do?“. That opportunity was briefly in doubt: 277 people signed up for the event at the Daylife office, which had planned for a capacity of 150. Fortunately for me, my friend Ken Ellis let me in early, and I was not turned away at the door. Which is fortunate for you, since it means I have something to blog about!

Jarvis was entertaining, as expected. He is an excellent speaker, both when he’s delivering prepared material and when he’s put on the spot by aggressive audience members, who were in no short supply.

I perhaps deserve credit (responsibility?) for inciting the mob by asking the first question, suggesting that Google was the opposite of transparent (one of the most “Googly” qualities in his enumeration) and that, if we were to learn anything from Google, it was that success is best achieved through benign dictatorship. In fact, I told Jarvis that I thought he’d already seen the light on this issue.

Jarvis didn’t even flinch. First, he made clear that he was more interested in “the idea of Google” than the company itself. Second, he argued that Google has made the world transparent, even if Google isn’t always transparent itself. Finally, he suggested that being in continuous beta was a form of transparency. I didn’t have a chance to follow up after that, but others did, and I was happy to see that the crowd, on the whole, seemed unpersuaded by the culty premise of “the idea of Google”.

But what I enjoyed far more that the advertised event was the heated conversation I had, following Jarvis’s presentation. Bob Wyman, an engineer at Google, offered a full-throated defense of as many of Google’s technology and business decisions as I could question. While we ultimately agreed to disagree, I credit him for making a serious case. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take notes and uphold my side of the argument at the same time, so I’ll apologize in advance for any details I’ve lost or garbled in my good-faith recollection.

Here is what I recollect from our discussion:

  • Our biggest point of contention was about the black-box nature of Google’s approach to relevance. Bob was quite familiar with the analogy to security through obscurity, but he objected that, before the discovery of public key cryptography, security through obscurity was the best game in town. In other words, the folks working on relevance ranking algorithms are still waiting for the equivalent of Diffie-Hellman or RSA.
  • He rejected attention bond mechanisms as gameable, though I don’t recall any explanation as to why. It’s possible that he simply wasn’t familiar with them, and that my explanation didn’t do justice to the concept.
  • He insisted that I wasn’t giving enough credit to Google for its experimentation – specifically, that I underestimated how much variation there was in result ranking  based on the collection of simultaneous experiments running at any given time.
  • He  felt I was being unreasonable to expect Google to disclose more about its retrieval approach, not only because it would help spammers, but also because it would unnecessarily give users more to think about.
  • Finally, he felt that almost any clever idea would break down because of the combined constraints imposed by the hordes of spammers, the scale of the data, and the challenges of freshness.

Bob defended Google well, and I can’t say that either of us “won” the fight. Indeed, so much hinges on whether you can believe, as he does, that Google is only limited by what technology makes possible and what its engineers can implement. He rejects my assertion that Google’s has crippled the user experience because of some philosophical predilection towards black box approaches. In fact, he maintains that Google is incredibly open for a company of its size.

Unfortunately, the truth resides in the ultimate black box:  I can’t evaluate Google’s motivations from the outside. Bob invited me to work at Google to help solve the problem from the inside (I don’t think he meant that as a literal offer), but that not here or there. I think it’s only fair to judge a company from the outside. If Google wants to fix the misimpressions that I and others hold, it can certainly do so by providing more information. Absent such information from the source, I have to fall back on the public data and my powers of reasoning.

But let me say this clearly: I believe that most – perhaps all – Googlers mean well. Google’s China policy notwithstanding, I don’t think that Google is an evil company. On the whole, Google has done much more good than bad, and I believe that doing the right thing is a core company value, even if Google does not always live up to its aspirations.

My only problem is that, in the one area I’m most passionate about, it seems that Google is holding the world back. Google has become the legacy system that HCIR has to beat.

A parting joke, courtesy of Ken Ellis:

Q: What would Google do if they were a restaurant?

A: They would build a search engine and an internet ad auction system.

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