The secret life of Google

An SN&R reporter goes searching for answers, 10 years later, at the Googleplex

Sacramento native Tara Canobbio worked with Google in Biloxi, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina. The experience led to her current role developing educational outreach strategies for the tech company’s Computing and Programming Experience summer camps.

Sacramento native Tara Canobbio worked with Google in Biloxi, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina. The experience led to her current role developing educational outreach strategies for the tech company’s Computing and Programming Experience summer camps.

Photo by Jerome Love

Google is more than just search—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, 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 as a reporter for The Sacramento Bee 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 Google’s Mountain View headquarters—a mere two-hour drive from Sacramento—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 cafe! 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 and 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.

Do the math: That’s 11,574.07 searches every second.

Such success, of course, means that Google faces constant scrutiny: How profitable is it? How innovative? And, most importantly, what’s next?

Such omnipresence means Google is also one of the most-studied firms of the digital age, questioned and criticized for, among other issues, the way it handles users’ sensitive personal information, for its censorship policies in countries such as China and how much money it spends on lobbying politicians. Last May, Google came under fire following the revelation that the company had collected data by “harvesting” users’ sensitive information through Street View, a Google Maps technology that provides panoramic images of streets around the globe. In April, the FCC ended its investigation, censured Google for noncooperation and fined it $25,000.

Google’s official corporate motto is, famously, “Don’t be evil,” but in recent years, industry experts have watched as the company has not only expanded its reach, but also, apparently, redefined the underlying philosophy beneath that maxim.

Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt perhaps summed up the company’s ever-evolving corporate values in a recent interview with Wired magazine:

“Evil,” Schmidt explained cryptically to a reporter, “is what Sergey says is evil.”

The house that search built

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 cafes 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, 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 some cases, will record the conversation), and photographers cannot, under any circumstances, take pictures of computer screens or employee badges.

Doesn’t every company have a life-size replica of NASA’s SpaceShipOne rocket in its lobby?

Photo by Jerome Love

But such concerns shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: Google’s fortunes may be built on search, but its current mission goes much deeper than typing a question into an empty box.

War zones, silver bullets and the digital divide

For Tara Canobbio, Google’s impact resonated most in a small but significant moment that occurred in 2005 in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the Southern coast of the United States with devastating force. The Sacramento native, then working at Google as part of its employment-and-development team, had assembled a small staff, trained with the American Red Cross and deployed to Biloxi, Mississippi.

There, Google employees set up a makeshift camp where they witnessed the storm’s destruction first-hand and tried to help in even the smallest of ways. For Canobbio, that meant putting her contraband laptop—which the Red Cross had specifically requested be kept at home—to good use.

“[There] was this war-zone mentality—we were a church, a clinic, a food bank and a shelter,” says Canobbio, a striking tall woman with a shorn head and the tendency to talk at a breathlessly fast clip.

They were also a provider of information—Google’s prime currency. For days, Canobbio remembers, she helped hurricane survivors with myriad tasks: Checking email, refilling prescriptions, finding the nearest Walmart—mundane, routine duties that restored a semblance of normality to lives otherwise thrown into chaos.

“The ability for people to be able to check their email once or a twice a day [was big],” Canobbio says.

Sometimes the tasks took on deeper meaning. There was the man, for example, who needed to replace his eyeglasses. For a few moments he watched as Canobbio tapped information into a search field, trying to figure the closest options.

“What’s that?” he asked, nodding at the laptop screen.

It was Google Earth, the virtual geographical mapper, newly gone live, she explained.

It gave him an idea.

“Can you show me my house?” he asked.

Canobbio typed in the information and the pair watched as Google Earth’s camera zoomed in on the man’s home, damaged but still standing. With a few clicks and swipes of the mouse, Canobbio showed him the rest of his street, everything the hurricane left behind.

“It was such an emotionally charged moment,” Canobbio remembers. “Just a little five-minute interaction that changed his life, and Google was there to help him in a real way, to give him perspective.”

Later, as her job evolved, Canobbio says she recognized a way for the company to reach students.

So, drawing on her 1 percent pool of time—the fraction of company hours, money and resources that Googlers may officially devote to social issues—Canobbio outlined ideas for an educational camp that would “show students the possibility” of everything Google offered.

She looked at, in particular, her time spent in Biloxi.

“I started to dive into the educational system there—how when the schools were rebuilding they were not looking where to go in the future—for opportunities to be successful in the workplace in the 21st century,” she says.

The result was CAPE—the Computing and Programming Experience summer camp aimed at exposing “high-achieving, high-potential students” to the ins and outs of computer science.

It’s not just about programming, she says, it’s about giving students the technological tools to improve upon and sharpen their existing interests and ambitions.

Now in its third year, CAPE camps work with 110 students every summer. These camps, she adds, are “our laboratory, our opportunity to take the best practices that we’ve learned from the tech community.”

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 utilize 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.

Tiffany Montague’s work focuses on the company’s collaboration with NASA. Her official title with the company, not surprisingly, is intergalactic federation king almighty and commander of the universe.

Photo by Jerome Love

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.

With the Chromebook and associated Google support and training, Casap says, “We’ve eliminated the middleman, and in education, that’s huge.”

“We’re [trying to get teachers] to think about a paradigm shift—when I was growing up, we had the one library on 10th Avenue and 50th Street, and five schools shared it,” he says. “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.

It’s not just for fun, she says.

“This is about feeding new, emerging markets and trying to bring about radical change.”

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.

And while space exploration might seem light years away from Google’s original goal—powering search—Montague says both endeavors share an underlying philosophy.

“It’s not that much of a stretch,” Montague says. “It’s very much in concert with Google’s proven history,” she says. “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.

According to market-research firm ComScore, users only average about three minutes each month on Google Plus—just enough time to log on, look around and log off again. Compare that to the 405 minutes users spend on average each month on Facebook and the contrast becomes startlingly clear.

“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,” Lavoie says.

But the potential for more significant impact is there, he adds.

At Google, dogs seem as much of the workplace as their human counterparts.

Photo by Jerome Love

“If Google continues sewing everything together on the Web and getting more sophisticated with the search aspect of its brand, I see the company … becoming more of a threat to Facebook in the next year or so.”

But 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, 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,” Enderle says. “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.

“They’ve had difficulty wrapping their heads around the social nature of the Web—that’s why Facebook is so powerful, because it was designed to be social from the ground up,” Enderle says. “Google just doesn’t get people very well … that you need to build excitement and create communities.”

Those poor people skills, he adds, 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.

“The public perception of the company is a problem,” Enderle says. “The stories about the company are becoming increasingly negative—they’re increasingly portrayed as a firm that is not operating in the best interest of its customers … and that puts them in the same line of the old Standard Oil or British Petroleum—companies that [alienated] people.”

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, address, however, 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, Smith said.

“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 said in an email.

Some of that economic opportunity, however, seems to come at the users’ expense, and complaints about how the company uses—and monetizes—customer data have long plagued the company.

While Smith initially agreed to refer such questions to another publicist, my attempts to follow through for answers were met with silence.

Frustrating, but Google has continued to push at the legal boundaries of data gathering, factored with the company’s continued lack of transparency, Enderle explains, means two things: increased scrutiny and possible federal intervention coupled with a growing public distrust.

And frankly, Enderle says, that’s not just poor management, it’s terrible PR.

“Pulling people’s private information off of wireless networks creates a cloud. … If they better understood people, they could [instead] get the information they need without putting that access at risk,” Enderle says. “But they don’t, because they simply don’t get people.”

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”

With its lava lamps and bean bags, free food in the employee cafes and rows of colorful picnic-table umbrellas, the Mountain View-based Googleplex often feels more like a Willy Wonka wonderland than a corporate headquarters.

Photo by Jerome Love

“dog chew toy”

“stereotypes + reality”

“The Yahoo”

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:

“If you’re signed in to Google, you expect our products to work really beautifully together. For example, if you’re working on Google Docs and you want to share it with someone on Gmail, you want their email right there ready to use. Our privacy policies have always allowed us to combine information from different products with your account—effectively using your data to provide you with a better service. However, we’ve been restricted in our ability to combine your YouTube and Search histories with other information in your account. Our new Privacy Policy gets rid of those inconsistencies so we can make more of your information available to you when using Google.”

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.

“It’s important not to discount the intimacy of search data, what terms you decide to search for at various points in the day—they say a lot about you, what your concerns, what your hopes are,” Jeschke says. “Google is collecting that information and monetizing it.”

Still, she adds, the company’s policies actually rank very high when compared to other similarly sized companies. In 2011, the EFF launched its “Who Has Your Back?” petition, urging the globe’s largest Internet companies to be more transparent with their privacy policies. As part of the campaign, the EFF created a chart comparing practices among the likes of Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Apple and

“Google ranked the highest,” Jeschke says. “In many ways the company can be a great advocacy for privacy and for the digital rights of its users online.”

Even Google’s policy of censoring material in countries such China—the company routinely blocked or redirected sensitive searches there at the request of the Chinese government until 2010—illustrates the company’s global influence.

“We depend on Google for so much,” she says. “Every little decision they make affects us.”

24-hours-a-day 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!”

Ultimately, for employees such as Montague, the intergalactic space commander, working at Google is just that: Hard, creative work, the kind that pushes boundaries—to the moon and beyond.

And while the Googleplex perks are fun, they reveal something less frivolous: A push to succeed without the conventional restrictions.

One of Google’s most crucial features, Montague says, is that its work environment is “flat” rather than hierarchical.

“Google believes you should be able to channel good ideas without having to go through 20 layers of management,” she says. “It’s about empowering the employees, empowering good ideas to take hold.”

It’s a system, she says, that benefits everyone.

“We’re not all scientists,” Montague says. “We’re people with no degrees, people with art-history degrees—everyone is treated equally, everyone is allowed to have great ideas.”

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 the 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.