The secret life of Google
Our reporter goes searching for answers, 10 years later, at the Googleplex
Google is more than just a search engine—it’s a noun, a verb and a way of internet life. We use it every day, often without thinking. The search box is just there, empty and waiting for our questions, curiosities and concerns.
Launched in 1998, Google built its name by providing information and shaping perspectives. The company, founded by Stanford University students Sergey Brin and Larry Page, started as a simple but powerful search-engine company that redefined what it meant to look up information on the internet.
Back when I first visited Google in 2002, the company was known almost exclusively for its ability to provide answers. Then, in a field crowded with clunky search engines such as Lycos and AltaVista, Google stood out with its lightning-fast, intuitive query results.
Likewise, the company’s Mountain View headquarters was the kind of place that seemed to epitomize the dot-com age’s fun, pioneering, anti-corporate spirit. The Googleplex of 10 years ago comprised only two modestly sized buildings and a sprawling parking lot that seemed, in fact, bigger than its office space. But a publicist accompanied me on a tour, and our travels revealed a fun, freewheeling vibe: A help-yourself cereal bar tucked in amid the cubicles! Free vegan food in the employee café! Bean bags for napping! Lava lamps!
Then, too, it was easy to schedule a quick interview with Brin and Page, the two friends who founded the company on the notion that search should be smart and easy, with query results generated via an algorithm method that ranked results by usefulness and popularity—without the influence of ad dollars.
The early version of Google, Brin told me then, “was a very primitive search engine … but as more people began to use it, it became increasingly clear that we had [created] a valuable technology.”
And although Brin and Page said they were “surprised” by Google’s success, they also got why the search engine had become less of a utilitarian tool and more of a lifestyle application.
“[S]earches are important to people,” Brin said. “They search for information on their health, on their careers—for things important to their lives.”
In the years that have followed, the company also armed its users with an arsenal of useful tools such as email, online data storage, productivity software and, with its acquisition of companies such as YouTube, Blogger and Picasa, has built a veritable virtual empire.
It’s the most-visited site in the world: According to Google’s own figures, more than 1 billion queries are conducted daily via its search engine.
Such success, of course, means that Google faces constant scrutiny: How profitable is it? How innovative? And, most importantly, what’s next?
A decade had passed since my first visit to the Googleplex, so now seemed a good time to return for a look at how the company has evolved. Indeed, it’s a full-fledged international entity boasting 33,000 employees who work in 70 offices in 40 companies around the globe, from Seattle to Boston and New York, Dublin to Zurich, Dubai to Hong Kong and Seoul to Tokyo.
Closer to home, the Mountain View campus employs nearly one-third of its workforce and spreads out over several city blocks that are populated by three dozen buildings and a notable dearth of parking spaces. Workers bike on brightly colored cruisers or stroll through grassy commons, laptops tucked under arms or into messenger bags with Androids—the Google-powered smartphones—seemingly glued to fingertips.
Dogs trot in and out of buildings, following their human counterparts to meetings and conferences and even trips to the bathrooms that sport, at least in some buildings, heated toilet seats. There are indoor playgrounds—complete with bright plastic slides and jungle gyms—and baskets stocked with Jolly Rancher candies. There are on-site haircuts and oil changes. There are video games and a bowling alley that’s available to be booked by the lane for work meetings; there are volleyball and tennis courts, soccer fields and hiking trails that snake through wooded enclaves and over picturesque footbridges. There are hammocks and picnic tables, free umbrellas for rainy days, swimming pools and big-screen TVs. There is, even, a rocket—well, a life-size replica of NASA’s SpaceShipOne, to be exact—that hangs above a staircase, held in place via an intricate system of wires and pulleys.
The lava lamps are still there, as is the free food—there are numerous cafés throughout the premises, in fact, with dishes to meet every dietary need and taste: kosher, vegan and gluten-free; sushi, pizza and sandwiches, as well as refrigerated cases stocked with free bottles of vitamin water, sports drinks and bubbly sodas.
These are, inarguably, great employee perks—presumably funded, at least in part, by the profits Google earns via its AdWords program—$28 billion in 2010—which offers merchants pay-per-click, cost-per-thousand and site-targeted advertising.
It’s no wonder Fortune Magazine ranked Google the No. 1 place to work in 2012—placing it ahead of such companies as Zappos.com, Whole Foods Market and the Mayo Clinic.
But the Willy Wonka vibe belies the company’s notable evolution. Any hopes of snagging even a few minutes with either Brin or Page, a spokeswoman informs me via email, is simply out of the question.
There is, too, a notably heightened sense of secrecy, security and other proprietary concerns. All visitors must sign in upon arrival, most are not allowed within eyeball distance of cubicles, a spokesperson is present for all interviews—and in some cases, will record the conversation—and photographers cannot, under any circumstances, take pictures of computer screens or employee badges.
Evangelists and space commanders
For Jaime Casap, “senior education evangelist” at Google, educational outreach isn’t just a way to train the nation’s future doctors, lawyers and engineers.
It is, he says, about giving opportunities to all children, regardless of their career aspirations. Such outreach, he adds, is both a professional goal and a personal touchstone of success.
“I’m a first-generation American, born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen on welfare. My mother came from Argentina … and English was my second language,” he says. “Education is the silver bullet, education is what can transform a family in just one generation—when I graduated from high school, the job I currently have didn’t exist.”
Casap, who joined Google in 2005 as a project manager in the company’s engineering division, eventually reimagined his job and moved into education where he currently trains teachers and other school staff on how to best use the web. Now Google’s strongest tool, he says, is the Chromebook—a small laptop-type web-enabled device that uses the Google Drive cloud-storage system for creating, sharing and saving documents. Chromebooks, Casap says, are relatively inexpensive, priced at $449 each, and, more importantly, easy to use and customizable for various skill levels and classes.
These tools, he says, are crucial when it comes to bridging the “digital divide”—inequalities between individuals, households, businesses and classrooms as related to levels of access to technological information, resources and devices.
“We’re [trying to get teachers] to think about a paradigm shift,” Casap says. “When I was growing up, we had the one library on 10th Avenue and 50th Street, and five schools shared it. Now we have the web, and the web gives us all that information at our fingertips … and we’re going to need to teach kids how to analyze and process that information.”
Increasingly, the ability to evaluate all the information that’s available is going to be crucial. Because with knowledge and critical thinking, comes great things.
At least that’s the ethos adopted by Tiffany Montague, Google’s intergalactic federation king almighty and commander of the universe—or intergalactic space commander for short.
Yes, that’s her actual job title.
Tall and lanky with electric blue streaks running through her jet-black hair, Montague epitomizes Google’s self-governing, quasi-renegade work ethos as she shows visitors one of her favorite spots at the Googleplex: The giant immersive Google Earth booth that gives viewers an awe-inspiring view of space and beyond.
Indeed, the former Air Force officer’s job includes spearheading the company’s efforts to put a robot on the moon through the Lunar X Prize, a competition organized by the X Prize Foundation and sponsored by Google.
The purpose, Montague says, is for privately funded spaceflight teams to compete to successfully launch, land and maneuver data-collecting robotic devices across the surface of the moon.
Montague credits the company’s “20 percent time” program, which allows employees to devote a fifth of their workweek to pursue special projects. For Montague, who joined Google in 2005 as a technical program manager, that meant being able to pursue a lifelong love of space and eventually carve out a more specialized job that focused on the company’s collaboration with NASA.
“It’s not that much of a stretch,” Montague says. “It’s very much in concert with Google’s proven history. It’s thinking outside the box.”
It’s the people, stupid
Since its inception, Google’s growth has been nothing short of extraordinary. In April, the company reported its quarterly profits were up 24 percent from the same time period in 2011. The company also announced that its board of directors had unanimously approved a stock dividend proposal that would “preserve” the company’s existing corporate structure.
“We are still at the very early stages of what technology can do to improve people’s lives and we have enormous opportunities ahead,” Page said in a company press release. “It is a very exciting time to be at Google.”
Or, as the company stated in its 2008 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, what “began as technology company … evolved into a software, technology, internet, advertising and media company all rolled into one.”
Recently, however, it seems that trying to be become everything to everyone is not enough.
Google’s attempts at creating social-networking platforms to compete with the likes of Facebook and Twitter, in fact, have been notoriously disappointing.
In 2011, for example, the company “retired” its microblogging site Google Buzz and introduced instead Google Plus, a social-networking site equipped with circles, hangouts and sparks designed to promote interaction between users.
But although interest in the site started strong—Google Plus boasted 49 million new sign-ups in December alone—it hardly matches its rivals. While the company reported the site had 100 million active users as of February, analysts say such numbers don’t reflect reality.
“Google Plus may have 100 million users, but they’re not engaged,” says Rick Lavoie, senior vice president for the Washington, D.C.-based Levick Strategic Communications. “People don’t return to [Google Plus] like they do to Facebook.”
But the potential for more significant impact is there, he adds.
Rob Enderle, senior analyst for the Enderle Group, a San Jose-based technology analyst firm, sees it differently. While Google does machines very well, Enderle says, the company doesn’t really get people.
Google, he says, is Web 2.0 company in an increasingly Web 3.0 world.
“Web 1.0 was the creation of browsers,” Enderle says. “Web 2.0 was exploring the Web and making it useful, and Web 3.0 is making it social—and that’s where Google bounced. Google is an engineering company—the most engineering-based company I’ve ever seen … and, let’s face it, engineers are not known to be the most social individuals.”
The result, he adds, is a company that excels at the nuts and bolts of technology but fails miserably at understanding the people who use it. Those poor people skills are also evident in the company’s recent public-relations woes.
Criticized routinely on matters regarding privacy and censorship, Google routinely takes a brisk “no comment” approach—not a particularly smart tactic, Enderle says.
Certainly, Google’s refusal to answer to various complaints, questions and criticisms is mind-boggling from a public-relations standpoint.
When I called a Google spokesperson, for example, she refused to discuss recent queries into the company’s so-called illicit “data harvesting.”
Perhaps the facts say enough: Between 2007-2010, Google cameras photographed streets the world over. At the same time, the company’s software collected sensitive information via unencrypted Wi-Fi networks: personal emails, passwords and web searches of hundreds of millions of users.
Google initially claimed such harvesting was unintentional—the work of a “rogue” engineer—but a new report reveals a darker, more complex picture: According to internal documents reviewed by the Federal Communications Commission during a 17-month investigation, not only was the data collection intentional, it was the result of a systematic, company-wide program.
“I’m not going to comment on that,” said Google spokeswoman Samantha Smith, cutting me off mid-question.
Smith did, however, address recent reports that Google spent a record $5.03 million lobbying Washington politicians between January and March of this year. It’s money well spent—and crucial for the continued growth of a company of Google’s size.
“It should be expected that we would want to help people understand our business—the work we do to keep the internet open, to encourage innovation, and to create economic opportunity,” Smith wrote in an email.
See no evil, hear no evil, search no evil
To the left of a reception desk at one of Google’s many Mountain View offices there’s an LED screen—just past the basket of candy, the lush plants and the cooler of free drinks—that scrolls through a feed of live, real-time searches. The feed is filtered for porn and other questionable topics, of course, although a publicist admits, laughing, that “sometimes things slip through.”
With or without the risqué content, the screen inarguably reveals the extent to which people worldwide rely upon the tool to find out anything and everything relevant to their lives:
“the Meow Mix house”
“dog chew toy”
“stereotypes + reality”
Simple enough. Benign, actually. Historically, however, what Google does with that information remains one of the company’s stickiest sticking points.
Over the years, the company has been criticized for its privacy policies—specifically how they impact the millions of users who daily use the company’s programs to check their Gmail, watch videos on YouTube or search for directions on Google Maps.
In March, Google introduced a new policy that consolidates user information across all its services and platforms.
In an explanation posted on the company’s blog, Google outlined the changes as such:
Privacy experts, however, say the new agreement remains troubling.
“Google’s new policy does not improve on past policies—it has fewer privacy protections,” says Rebecca Jeschke, a digital-rights analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“Before, your Google search data didn’t co-mingle with your YouTube search data, but now, unless you go through a series of steps—steps that are not clearly outlined on the site—then that data gets aggregated together,” she says on the phone from her San Francisco office. “That has a number of privacy implications—the more data you collect on someone, the more complete picture you have of who they are.
“I don’t want my Google search history associated with my YouTube account,” she adds. “That kind of creeps me out.”
As it should—just think about the queries you type into Google’s iconic box.
For most of us, however, that influence seems virtually invisible. I know I don’t think about it much when I’m typing questions into a box. I just know the box is there, at my service, 24 hours a day.
Likewise, most visitors to the Googleplex probably don’t notice the writing on the window in the lobby of one its Mountain View buildings. It’s there, however, carefully scrawled in thick, pink letters at the bottom of a glass pane nearly hidden from view—overshadowed, no doubt, by the nearby espresso bar, a gushing waterfall, and rows of cushy, comfy overstuffed chairs and couches.
“Hi Google People! Thanks 4 the hard + creative work!”
Certainly, as I walk through the campus now—hoping in vain for a Brin or Page sighting—and watch as employees stare intently at laptops while seated at indoor picnic tables or outside on benches near a leafy vegetable and herb garden, it’s hard not to envy both the company’s growth and its commitment to creating the kind of environment that feels more like an amusement park than stuffy corporate drudgery.
Although Google arguably remains a great place to work—a place that fosters real digital growth, change and perspectives—too many troubling questions linger. Questions too complex, puzzling or philosophical to be entered into a simple search-engine box. And so far, Google won’t respond, even though it’s a business theoretically built on the promise of providing answers.