Hyderabad: Vinay Goel, head of products at Google Inc.’s India unit, relocated to Bangalore four years ago after joining the company in the US. One of the first things Goel did on moving to his new home was to search online for a plumber and an electrician located in his neighbourhood as he used to do in the US; he couldn’t find either. Nor could he find directions on the Internet for driving to work from home. That led to the development of Map Maker, the Google service that allows users to add features such as banks, businesses and schools on a city’s map, and proved to be invaluable in the rescue and relief efforts that followed disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti last year. Goel, in his early 40s, is an alumnus of the University of California, Berkeley, and Northwestern University, Kellogg Graduate School of Management. In an interview before making a media presentation on Google’s search capabilities, the 20-year veteran in the technology business spoke about the work being done by the company’s Indian unit, which with some 2,000 employees, is Google’s largest by headcount outside the US, and its future plans: Edited excerpts:
On Google India’s contribution to global operations:
From a product engineering perspective, we support both global and local initiatives out of the Bangalore and Hyderabad offices. What we have found is that the amount of innovation that is happening out of these offices is probably higher than (that at) most other offices just because of the DNA -- somehow the offices have created the kind of DNA where we think about hard problems. But the other thing we have is access to users who are coming onboard, onto the Internet, probably faster than anywhere else in the world. And they have a unique set of challenges which become a kind of proxy for emerging users across the world. The problems we have with languages, with local information, with maps... are the same as you would have in Southeast Asia, Latin America, Africa or the Middle East, so we are essentially developing products that are now helping all of these different countries.
Right mix: Goel sees video becoming a bigger part of Google’s ad pie.
When I moved from the US to India about four years ago and then I found a home and moved there, I said I need a plumber and an electrician -- all those standard things -- and I went to the Web and did a Google search. And there were no results. Now I needed driving directions from my home to the office. There was, like, a very skeletal map and no driving directions... So we had to start from scratch. We sort of thought about the best way to do this (and decided to) let users build the data...we launched one of the products called Map Maker. We had satellite imagery of all of India. and we said here is a satellite image you, as a user, can go to, find the locality that you live in or that you know of and you can go and start populating it. You know, where you see a road, mark it as a road, where you see a bank, mark it as a bank, where you see a school, a garden, start marking it all up. Within 18 months, we had all of India mapped with very dense information to the extent that we can give you driving directions.
On Facebook overtaking Google’s social network Orkut in India, one of Orkut’s biggest markets :
I think Facebook has clearly done a fantastic job in terms of being the first network that is very popular globally. Most Indians have a very global social graph. You have people you know in the Gulf, you know people in the US, your cousins have all gone there. The issue with Orkut was that it was very local to Brazil and India; it was very strong in Brazil and India, but not strong anywhere else in the world, not in the countries that Indians typically migrate to, not strong in the UK, not strong in the US. Because these things have a mind of their own how they evolve, you can’t really say I’m going to do this and push it and people will adopt it. It is kind of very viral in nature. Facebook has done a good job growing very globally. Orkut tends to be very strong in India still. In the Tier II, Tier III towns, we are much stronger than Facebook. If you think of the things that Orkut has done very well, for example in the photo uploads -- tremendous. If you want to connect with any special group -- your alumni network, your local people who are interested in a particular activity, you are a member of a particular club -- Facebook doesn’t have that... So I think there are a lot of hooks that keep people engaged with Orkut. We may not be growing as fast as Facebook but we are retaining our core users... because there are a lot of cool things there that keep them coming.
Advertising potential in India, mix of text-display ads:
Obviously, text has been the mainstay and continues to grow, but display is making an interesting entry. When we did IPL (Indian Premier League) on YouTube last year, we had 55 million people who viewed IPL... We got advertisers who would not ordinarily consider Google before -- people like the beverages folks, or the Hero Hondas of the world and so on. These are people who are very eyeball-centric, consumer brand-image centric, they typically advertise on TV, and they said, well, YouTube is TV, it is just being consumed on a different screen. We were suddenly able to bring in those types of advertisers that we had never been able to bring before. As consumption of video happens both on mobile as well as the desktop, display ads... are going to become a much, much bigger part of the pie for us.
Across the world, we are looking to expand, both organically and inorganically, so we are acquiring companies, probably one company a week kind of thing. Typically, what drives these acquisitions is the strength of the technology.team and the innovation that they bring with them. To some extent, I think India is definitely there. We have talked to a lot of companies in India and will continue to do so.