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Googling Google

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David A. Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005; 1:00 PM

A deal with NASA? A subculture of former employees? What's really going on behind the walls of the Googleplex? Washington Post staff writer David A. Vise was online Thursday, Dec. 15 at 1 p.m. ET to dig into what makes Google Google.

In a recent Outlook piece titled What Lurks in Its Soul? (Nov. 13, 2005), Vise wrote that one of Google's newest deals is a "far-reaching, complex partnership with NASA, unlike any agreement between a private firm and the space agency, to share data and resources and employees and identify ways to create new products and conduct searches together in space. Although NASA is a public entity, many of the details of the partnership remain hidden from public view."

Vise, author of The Google Story , is also reporting on the emergence of a group of former Google employees , who call themselves Xooglers. They give a candid look at what really goes on at corporate headquarters, also known as the Googleplex.

A transcript follows .

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Chicago, Ill.: I have read that Google plans to provide free wireless internet access to everyone in the country. Is this really a plan that Google has? How soon can they actually do that?

David Vise: Google has a cool-looking globe at headquarters that shows where its searches are coming from as rays of light. It is dark in the Amazon. Google wants to bring electric power and the wireless web to remote corners of the world and major cities too. Google is putting free wireless in place now in Silicon Valley now and hopes to do San Francisco next. The company says these are tests, but I also know Google plans to profit through online ads targeted locally since it will know where users/searchers are geographically.

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Madison,Wis.: More important than a deal with NASA would be a deal with NSA. Anything there?

David Vise: I have read reports of Google doing work with NSA, CIA and FBI and other intelligence agencies but have no confirmation. In "The Google Story," the president of Stanford, who is a Google board member, says the company has more computing power than enterprise. Given its search capacity and the collection of brilliant minds coupled with technology, it would not surprise me if Google was doing work for the intelligence community in fight against terrorism and in other ways.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you know whether there is a real plan of attack for Google to penetrate the corporate world to help companies access their proprietary information? If so, how would you characterize it?

David Vise: Google is marketing something called the Google Search Appliance. It is designed to help companies organize and search for information within their firms. It is already in this business and while it is small compared to online search, it is growing.

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Fayetteville, N.C.: What do you think of the AIT lawsuit for click fraud? Is this something that could snowball and put a chink in their armor?

Thanks.

David Vise: Google Chief Financial Officer George Reyes once said click fraud posed the single biggest threat to Google's robust financial performance. But confidence remains high in Google search and the ability of ads on Google to deliver value. Google advertisers seem to be accepting that some level of click fraud--competitors clicking away to use up a rival's ad budget, for instance--is ok as long as Google ads continue to deliver. The lawsuits over click fraud are extremely important to watch. It is a potential risk.

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Bethesda, Md.: Have you been able to find out any more details about the deal with NASA?

David Vise: The deal with NASA is fascinating. Google plans to build housing for employees, research facilities and joint operations with NASA in Calif. to further the discovery of new technologies and foster search beyond earth to what is taking place in space. They also plan to jointly explore manned-space travel. This is definitely one to watch closely as it rolls out. It is a sign of Google's ambition, which goes beyond the earth when it comes to search. Extraordinary results are possible.

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Louisville, Ky.: Have you played ColorJunction on Google yet? It's terrific!

David Vise: I have not played ColorJunction but if it is terrific, it sounds like something to try over the holidays.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: When will Google World be available for Macintosh computers?

David Vise: I don't know.

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Arlington, Va: Two questions. What are the odds that Google might develop an operating system to compete with Windows? I've also seen rumors over the past few days that Google could acquire the Opera browser. Is this a possibility?

David Vise: Google says it is playing on a bigger platform than thePC---the Internet. So the traditional notion of building an operating system, in teh way Microsoft has done, is not on the company's agenda, CEO Eric Schmidt says. I do know that many people, rather than using Internet Explorer or another browser, travel to Web sites by using a Google search. This is a de facto way in which Google gains Mindshare as well as marketshare. I don't know whether the rumors about Opera will lead to a deal or not.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Hi David,

What significant changes have you seen at the Googleplex since the company went public?

Thanks!

Andy

David Vise: Great question. Well, there are several billionaires and more than 1,000 millionaires at Google now. Human nature means things are changing. Some people have left the company and others have been spending their new-found wealth on homes and cars and other items. There is also a change at the company because it is growing so rapidly since going public and the risks are higher when managing such hyper-growth. The company is hiring 8 to 10 people each day. Most don't meet Lary and Sergey on the way in.

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New York: My question is probably the same as a lot of people's: Just what is Google up to? The scope of its activities are so vast that it almost seems that they're building some form of global cyber mind. Does it only seem that way or is something like that in their sights?

David Vise: Sergey Brin is passionate about the intersection of biology, technology and genetics and envisions a day when computer users will be able to Google their Genes. Here is what Sergey says in "The Google Story": "Why not improve the brain? You would want a lot of compute power. Perhaps in the future, we an attach a little version of Google that you just plug into your brain. We'll have to develop stylish versions, but then you'd have all of the world's knowledge immediately available, which is pretty exciting."

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Washington D.C.: Hey David,

I am reading your book now and I think its great. Although I am kinda bummed you dont expound more on google maps and google earth. These are I think some of the most amazing products to come out of google, especially considering how well they out perform yahoo maps and mapquest.

David Vise: I am glad you are enjoying "The Google Story." I loved writing it and found the reporting and research so fascinating that I was sorry when I wrote the last word. The "wow" factor in Google Earth is about as high as any technology on the Internet. And Google Maps is also, as you suggest, a very strong competitor for Mapquest and Yahoo Maps. I hope to write more about this area.

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Columbia, Md.: Who are these Xooglers? Are they disgruntled and are they changing your perspective of what goes on behind the scene at Google? In other words, is it Google not so grand as it appears?

David Vise: Xooglers by and large are not disgruntled, nor do they make Google appear to be less grand. They do offer important behind-the-scenes perspectives of what their own personal experiences working at Google were all about. By and large they are pretty positive,though burnout seems to be one issue that comes up for Xooglers in terms of why some left. Also, there are anecdote about how everyone in a room believes one thing, Larry Page believes another, his view carries the day, and he turns out to be correct.

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Montgomery Village, Md.: Google World maps have many areas that are un-sharp. Why is that so, and will most every places be equally clear, if ever?

David Vise: Google is working on it.

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Chesapeake Beach, Md.: Google is huge, a monster, a dominating force, but do you think they have more competition in their core business than say Microsoft does in their core business? I can still remember when Yahoo was "the thing", and then Alta Vista, and now Google. Isn't there a chance of someone coming along in a few years and outdoing them?

David Vise: Larry Page believes the quality of Google's search results, on a scale of 1 to 10, is only about a 3. So someone could invent a superior way to search. Meanwhile, Google is working hard to improve its results through personaliation. Having said that, Google has an extremely srong brand name and a network of hundreds of thousands of web sites that display Google Search and profit handsomely from ads Googld serves up on their sites. This strengthens the business, as does Google's hefty investment in a PC network of hundreds of thousands of machines deployed globally that Stanford's President says is the greatest hurdle for any competitor. In The Google Story, we refer to this optimal blending of hardware and software as Googleware.

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Washington, D.C.: A lot of Google's services seem to stay in "beta" for a very long time, despite being open to the public and widely used (e.g. gmail, scholar, froogle). Do you have any idea why google does this?

David Vise: It is a way to push products and services out faster so Google can gain an edge. Page believes innovation and remaining nimble as Google grows is critical. But when products and services are not totally ready for prime time, he pushes for the early beta release so Google can learn from users what needs to be improved. It is also a marketing technique; the more cool new stuff that is available, the more cuttin-edge Google feels and the more users it attracts.

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Millbrae, CA: Can you explain the different sources of revenue for Yahoo and Google? What percentage of revenue for Google is not associated with advertising?

David Vise: Google gets nearly 100 percent of its revenue from advertising. Yahoo gets most of its revenue from ads too, but also profits through some content and games, including music and fantasy sports leagues.

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Little Rock, Ark.: Is there currently anything that poses a real threat to Google's dominance?

David Vise: The two biggest threats to Google's dominance are the risk of arrogance at the Googleplex, which often accompanies extraordinary success, and the risk that hyper-growth will cause it to stumble. Managing growth is the biggest day-to-day challenge. And it is formidable.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: How are things coming along with entering almost everything published in print? Someone I know "wrote" an article for a magazine but I'm sure he plagarized it as it's not his style nor in his words. I'd love to find out where it really came from.

David Vise: Google is doing everything it can to digitize books, magazines, newspapers and lots of other information that is not online and make it searchable. It also has a "spider" that periodically crawls the web to update its database. This is a high priority and an on-going process. There is a lot more information that is not on the Internet than is available there now. That is why Google, for instance, is digitizing millions of library books from Harvard, Stanford, Univ. of Michigan, Oxford and the NY Public Library.

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Washington D.C.: Is there a reason why when you search the word failure on google it takes you to WhiteHouse.gov, because that is really funny.

David Vise: Google is not perfect and people try to game the search system it deploys in ways that lead to these kinds of amusing results. Google is automated. In other words, the search result is not a function of political bias.

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Manassas, Va.: If Google really has made over 1,000 employees into millionares, what is their motivation for staying with the company rather than retiring early.

Is the outlook for google to continue to grow as rapidly as it has in the past, and make more and more money each year? or can we expect things to ever settled down or level off?

Is the perhaps a cause of many Xooglers? (Getting out before thier stock looses any value?)

David Vise: People stay at Google because they are working with brilliant colleagues on fascinating problems and have been given freedom and resources. That is one reason people stay. Eventually, Google's growth rate will slow. Nobody knows when. Finally, some newly rich Googlers stay because they have hopes of becoming even wealthy. And others stay because they have stock options or restricted stock that is not fully vested. Haing said that, Google hasn't reinvented human nature and hence there are Xooglers.

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Columbia, Tenn.: Will Barney Google be chosen as the mascot for the company? He already has a theme song: "Barney Google, with the Goo-Goo-Googly eyes."

David Vise: -:)

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Vernon, Ct.: Not so long ago I use to be able to type a name in the Google search and at least get for free, an address, perhaps a email address. Now it seems that that information is for fee only. Is that a correct observation; everything is eaten up by the profit motive?

David Vise: Your observation is not correct. Google is a free search service. Individuals who search on Google.com are not charged anything by Google. If you click on an ad above the free search results, or to the right of free search results, another business may try to charge you for a product or service. But this is not a change, and that is why companies advertise on Google.

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Washington, D.C.: What is Google's approach toward reciprocal linking? Does it put any stock in this practice in terms of where a site shows up in its natural search results? Along with that, what are some of the best ways a site designer can insure that their site shows up in the Google search results?

David Vise: There is an entire industry called search engine optimization that helps web publishers get sites to show up higher in Google and Yahoo rankings. Google periodically changes the way it ranks Web sites based on new mathematical forumulas and variables. Simple strategies like reciprocal linking can work sometimes, experts say, but not always. I suggest you do Google searches on reciprocal linking and how to show up higher in rankings to see the variety of ideas and views.

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Chantilly, Va.: Do you think a startup with a better algorithm for relevant query results can do to Google what they did to Yahoo?

David Vise: No. Not in the foreseeable future. Google has too many built-in network advantages and too many smart people on board for this to happen. And too many competitive advantages. This is a solid business with strong leadership. The risks are government regulation, lawsuits, arrogance that comes with success and mistakes from rapid growth. These are bigger threats than a better mousetrap.

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Washington, D.C.: Google began as a free search engine, got popular, became a household name (and a verb). They pride their search results on relevancy.

The booming Paid Search business continues to power their stock and make hundreds of millions dollars. As a google user, I find it frustrating to perform a google search and see 7 or 8 paid ads on the top and right hand sides that all have the same blue title. How is that relevant or helpful to me?

It appear that Google has tapped out it's product and has become saturated with advertisers going after the same person, by saying the same tagline.

Is Adwords a viable long term money maker for the company? How can they keep it fresh?

David Vise: Thanks for sharing your views. I have heard others complain that Google appears to be more commercial since the IPO in August 2004.

I do think AdWords or its successor is viable as a business model for the long-term. But innovation will be necessary. And a new model of advertisers paying not on a "cost per click" basis, but on a "cost per purchase" basis, may emerge with heightened competition.

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Miami, Fla.: What do you know about Google's payment/merchant strategies (i.e. Google Wallet/Base/Froogle)? Any plans to collaborate them in the future?

David Vise: Stay tuned. Still unfolding. But quite interesting.

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Silver Spring, Md.: While Google is a company focused on organizing the world's information, there have been a number of stories about investments in network -- very high capacity fiber optic intercity networks, very low capacity (300 kbps) free wireless services in San Fransisco, investments in broadband over powerline for DSL like capacity. They are doing that in the face of massive investments by cable and telephone companies in broadband where these companies through their control of the "pipe" seem to want to influence what goes over it. What do you think Google is trying to accomplish with its network investments and from what you understand about Google what are the characteristics of the broadband network Google wants to see develop here in the U.S.

David Vise: Larry Page is a hawk when comes to cutting costs and saving money. He is ensuring by buying high capacity fiber that Google can cut its peering costs. That, and cutting electrical expenses which are significant, show that Page is an engineer with an eye for software and the bottom line too. Google's offer of free wireless is in its early stages but has the potential to offer a revenue stream from targeted local ads tied to searches coming from specific places that Google can trace.

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Thurmont, Md.: Google has some great products and offers many useful services. Gmail, Blogger, Google Talk, and Picasa are just a few. However if you surf to google.com, it is pretty difficult to find links to any of these products without digging around the site. Google.com is one of the most visited sites on the web. Do you think it is strange that they don't advertise for their services and programs more prominently? With the amount of traffic google.com receives, they have a huge customer base that probably doesn't know about these great programs. Do you think this is to avoid looking more like a "portal" a la MSN and Yahoo?

David Vise: Great question. In talking about "The Google Story," I have found that many people just use Google for search and are not even aware of these other services. I think the company's approach has been to let people discover these rather than pushing them on users. Over time, I think Google will probably make many of these more visible to searchers. It is an engineering and data driven company rather than one that is marketing driven, and your observation is an example of one result from that approach.

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Washington, D.C.: David -- have enjoyed your coverage of AOL over the years. In early 2005, you covered the DOJ indictments of 2 former mid-level AOL'ers. Any sense of whether the DOJ investigation will "climb the ladder" to former AOL sr. execs or is it over with at this point?

David Vise: I am skeptical, given the passage of time.

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Florida: Is the Department of Justice still going after former AOL executives?

David Vise: I am aware of the cases that have been publicly announced and disclosed. I am not aware of ongoing probes.

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David Vise: Thanks everybody for your super questions. I invite you to visit www.thegooglestory.com and take the Google Labs Aptitude Test (GLAT) for fun. And if you have additional questions, please send them to me at ViseD@washpost.com.

Happy Holidays, thanks for the great questions and I look forward to more of these chats in 2006.

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