New Delhi: On the sidelines of the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit 2009, held on 30-31 October, Nikesh Arora, president of global sales operations and business development at Google Inc. and a member of the company’s operating committee, spoke about Google’s approach to copyright law, factors changing the Internet and how the company can grow without turning “evil”. Edited excerpts:
During your session, you spoke about how the Internet is becoming more social and more real-time. Content is being produced all the time by millions of people through Facebook, Twitter and other networks. How does this affect Google’s most important business: search?
The Internet is not unstructured. It is really a mass of structured information that you need to figure out a way of navigating through. The Web has changed very significantly in two ways. First, the sheer volume of data being added has increased rapidly. In the last five years, more data and content have been generated than in the previous 100 years combined. Secondly, the speed of updates has increased tremendously. Think about it. A regular newspaper is updated once a day. A newspaper’s website used to be updated at the same speed. But now, even these websites are updated continuously during the day.
These two changes put tremendous amounts of pressure on technological resources. That’s the biggest challenge.
How does this affect your core search advertising business? How do you engage with advertisers in this changed environment?
The first question is how do you engage with the consumer, with the user of your products. Google needs to keep delivering information. We like to say we are just one click away from the competition. The day you don’t find what you want with Google, you’ll go somewhere else. And so will advertisers.
Firm stand: Nikesh Arora says the need to innovate is what drives Google and not being ‘evil’ is something all its employees believe in. Sanjeev Verma / Hindustan Times
So, we are constantly working on our advertising service and algorithms, as hard as we are working on keeping users happy. The idea is to make advertising look as much as possible like information. If you are in a desert, a billboard for drinking water is information. But six billboards in one place is advertising.
How are Internet users responding to this surfeit of information?
There is this constant debate: is the Internet making people less social or more social? Should I let my child use the Internet on his computer?
Today, people can whip out a mobile phone and immediately search for a piece of information. Research shows that the ability to instantly find information is a much better way to retain and process this information than having to remember it and cram it down.
So as long as people have tools to navigate through all this information, they won’t be overwhelmed. People now go on to the Web and expect information to be there. If a fact does not appear on the Web, people expect it to be false. If it’s true, it’s online.
In your session, you said Google is an “information communication distribution network”. Now Google has business or products in all those things: information, communication, distribution and networks. How does Google approach those four things strategically? Which ones are key? And if Google had to start today, would it still be doing search?
It is important to see Google the business differently from Google as a technology movement. Effectively, what inspires us is our need to create amazing products. We don’t worry about how or when we are going to make money out of a product innovation. That will come later.
When the telephone was invented, it wasn’t created for direct marketing. That came later. Someone came up with this amazing idea to communicate better. And then, someone else came up with the idea to make money with it. Google doesn’t design to monetize.
First, we want to create a product that makes consumer go “wow”, and then create a user base and then figure out a way of making money.
Also, on stage you said that the concept of copyright has changed. Can you elaborate on that change?
I am not saying you should have access to copyright material without having to pay for it. What I am saying is that you should be able to digitally search for this information and digitally index it. If a library somewhere obscure has a book that 500 people around the world desperately want, there should be a way for them to know it is there.
One has to rethink these things in the digital age. That’s what I mean by this change. In the future, we will need to keep changing our rules to allow for technological possibilities.
On the Web, do you think advertising is the means of subsidizing for content, especially for media outlets, or do you think people will pay for content?
People do pay for content. Look at iTunes or the Kindle. People are paying for content and there is no advertising at all on those platforms. On the other hand, there is content available on the Web subsidized by news. So, there will be content along this whole spectrum from subsidized to advertising-free. Magazines come somewhere in the middle.
What about news?
Maybe in certain areas of news there is oversupply of content on the Web. After a Google results announcement, for instance, there are thousands of articles about it. After the first four or five, I don’t want to read anything. What do you do with 1,000 interpretations of the same thing?
I don’t know how to resolve this problem. There is value in the content. Something has to happen to resolve this over-supply of redundant news. There is a rethink going on about this oversupply.
To step back a little, Android, Chrome OS and the Chrome browser all had experts wondering why Google brought out those products. They didn’t fit into the conventional Google family of products and services...
If you think of the process of using the Web, there are three stages to this: First, the ability to organize the content you find. YouTube does this for video, Picasa for photos, Google Maps do it for locational content. The next part is getting to the content itself. Think of it as a pipe you need to navigate through with a device. You need the device.
The mobile phone is a case in point. After the Android, BlackBerry and other smartphones came out, search traffic through mobile has gone up 20 times. So, there is merit in having devices that can take care of that part of connectivity puzzle.
Google believes there is a lot more efficiency that can be brought to these devices and operating systems. Operating systems weren’t designed to work in a connected environment. We believe there are efficiencies to be brought into this. That explains Android and Chrome OS.
Then the only piece left is the piece of wire or the Wi-Fi connection at the end.
If we think we have technologies and ideas to bring efficiencies to that area, we could do that. There is no big Google strategy that says only focus here and not there. The strategy is to keep making products and see what happens.
So you could be an Internet operator or service provider one day?
I will say maybe. So that if we do it one day, it doesn’t look like I denied it. Five years ago, I would have probably said we’d not do an operating system. But then someone at Google had a great idea.
Have you or have you not applied for a WiMax licence in India as everyone has been writing about?
I read about it in the same newspapers as you.
There is a common complaint that companies acquired by Google have a tendency to disappear without a trace. Jaiku and Dodgeball being examples. Why is that?
It is all about iterative product development. You think of a new feature, you programme it, expose to a small portion of user base, take feedback, redeploy it the next morning and so on till you are ready. So there is a trial and error with new ideas. Which is one aspect of these acquisitions.
The other aspect is (that) sometimes it takes time to evaluate these ideas. Some ideas get dropped. Others come back in a new avatar. And I would think there are a lot more firms we’ve absorbed that have been launched successfully than otherwise. So in most cases, just hold on. We’re working on them.
As you keep growing larger and making more money, how difficult is it for Google to stick to its famous mantra of not being “evil”?
Not being evil is not something we periodically decide to keep doing or not. It is not a strategy we choose. Not being evil is part of our company DNA. Today, you can sit during a product meeting at Google and someone will suddenly ask if we are being evil with this product or service. It is something that all our 20,000 employees believe in.
It also makes great business sense. But it is a great line only if you can live up to it.