Last week, I came as close as I will ever get to a genuine geek god. Attending the Google Zeitgeist event, I got the chance to mingle with Larry Page, the man who founded the business and is now in 26th place on the Forbes rich list, with a worth of $12bn (£7.6bn).
Sadly, Larry was not asking me for my phone number (I imagine he’d instant message me on Gmail anyway). We were getting a briefing from Google’s two vice-presidents of engineering and international product management when Page popped into the presentation along with Eric Schmidt, the company’s chief executive.
Once in the room, Page and Schmidt held court in front of a small group and answered questions about the company’s strategy. Later, Richard Branson joined the pair on a larger stage and brought out the jokes about everybody windsurfing together off Necker Island.
So what the world wants to know is: will Google fork out and buy Twitter? Schmidt avoided the question, saying that the company did not have to buy a business to work with it and then cheekily asked for suggestions for other start-ups he could buy.
You might expect Branson to be the biggest draw in any room. But there was only one real star of the show – Google itself. Each year, the Zeitgeist event draws people from the most creative new media types to the chairmen of the world’s biggest brands. There were even a couple of crown princes (from Spain and Norway) taking notes at this one. Yet it’s not the big personalities turning up that cause the stir; everyone just wants a little bit of that Google gold dust.
The room was buzzing with questions. How will Google monetise its new services? Will it buy Twitter? Will it face greater regulation as it takes an ever-greater slice of the media pie? Does it worry that its ranking system of search will be threatened by new rivals using alternative methods? And how can we go windsurfing with Branson and Page? (That last one might just be me again.)
The issue of monetising services was certainly on Schmidt’s mind. Rumours have been flying about regarding how the company will make its controversial Streetview service pay its way. Many have suggested that there are two likely outcomes. One involves brands paying to have their shopfronts or outdoor ads featured in the photos – those that do not cough up would see that information blurred. Another involves “added value” services, such as embedded content so that rolling a cursor over a storefront or outdoor ad would bring up everything from a restaurant menu to a brand’s retail website.
Schmidt was quick to dismiss these ideas, at least in the short term. “There is no business plan,” he said. “We are not going to charge to appear in Streetview.”
Page pointed out that Google has not yet finished rolling out Streetview, meaning that outdoor ads, shopfronts and even road layouts may have changed since everything was last photographed. The level of speed in changing Streetview images means it does not have enough saliency as a marketing tool.
The issue of speed also came up in relation to Twitter. The micro-blogging site allows real-time updates and search. So what the world wants to know is: will Google fork out and buy Twitter? Schmidt avoided the question, saying that the company did not have to buy a business to work with it and then cheekily asked for suggestions for other start-ups he could buy.
More intriguing were hints as to how Twitter will affect Google’s own operations. Consumers are becoming increasingly expectant that online news and information be updated in real time. While Page argued that Google’s ranking system is enormous and that quality is better than speed, he admitted that Twitter had “done a great job”.
Twitter is not the only threat on the horizon for Google. New “answer engine” Wolfram Alpha (WA) launched just a fortnight ago, with a fresh way of letting consumers search for products. Rather than just ranking websites, it computes the answers to queries from “structured data”.
In other words, it’s like having someone cut and paste together everything you need to know about a certain topic, rather than just pointing you in the right direction of a useful website. WA has had mixed reviews and most people will probably stick with Google’s more familiar layout for now but it is a sign that the ranking system is not the only one out there.
Google is well aware of this and last week it showed off its new services to counter any threat, allowing people to change the way they search, chopping up results by trends, images and videos. It also showed off an as-yet unlaunched tool called Google Squared, which breaks down searches into thematic tables.
By the end of the event, I felt that the questions left unanswered by Page and Schmidt were almost as important as the ones the pair were prepared to discuss. Schmidt had said earlier that his mission was “to have good judgement, principles and be quite transparent about what we’re doing so you can see it, ask about it, criticise and point out what you see as inconsistencies”.
Despite this promise of openness, did I or the crown princes sitting near me have a better idea just why Google achieves such success? Not in detail, although the fact that the company brings together brains from every part of society suggests an internal corporate attitude that embraces innovation in a rare manner.
Alas, for me personally, the question of my hanging out with Page and Branson in the tropics remained unresolved. The crown princes probably did better on getting an invite. Still, I shall save my bitterness in case I see new Google mapping tool IslandView launched at next year’s Zeitgeist event.