There’s a conflict brewing at Google between humans and robots. And the robots aren’t going down without a fight.
Since it was founded in 1998, Google has been a company of engineers. Technologists who have both fuelled the massive growth of Web content and created powerful search algorithms to find and validate results.
But the Web is still a gangly teenager, and continuously growing.
A flashback to 1994, for example, is a striking reminder of just how much the Web has evolved over the last two decades — those were the days when prominent network news anchors stumbled over how to pronounce the “@” sign, or how to even explain to viewers what the Internet was. (See a pre-historic clip of Bryant Gumbel, Katie Couric, and Elizabeth Vargas on The Today Show struggling to wrap their head around the concept).
A little over sixteen years ago, the Web was a mystery to most of us. And for the much of those 16 years, Google has been there to connect content to search. Along the way, Google servers have reached out to touch blogs (blogger.com), voicemail (google voice), location data (google maps), even e-mail (gmail). Google has always operated under the assumption that the more data you shared with them, the better job they could do providing you with recommendations and advertising. It seemed like a reasonable plan.
But in the past 18 months, things have changed. Facebook is now the defacto winner in the social space – with 133.5 million monthly unique visitors a month. Google’s attempt to purchase Groupon and Twitter failed.
Together Facebook, Groupon, and Twitter represent a new kind of social behaviour. People, rather than robots, are driving the recommendations that are resulting in clicks and purchases on the Web.
It’s not as if Google hasn’t noticed this. Launching, and then shuttering services like Google Wave and Dodgeball. But the search giant’s attempts at human-powered recommendations have fallen flat.Why?
Well, reading for the first time about Google’s attempt to fire up a powerful philanthropic endeavour headed up by Larry Brilliant, you can see begin to see a pattern forming. Brilliant is the aptly named scientist who’s widely credited with helping to eradicate smallpox. He is well-respected, prolific, and extraordinary in his understanding of the human dimension of problems.
You see, not all problems can be solved with autonomous computing power. The transmission of disease, for example, requires scientists to understand both the data and the human dynamic. The New York Times describes Brilliant’s exit as the head of the Google Foundation as the result of his lack of management skills. But reading between the lines, you get a picture of Google management that is both uninterested in the human dimension of problem solving and messiness of non-digital problems.
There are big changes in the wind at Google, and Larry Page is now the CEO. Page has said publicly that social search needs to be a top priority.
But with Brilliant out – and the job of managing the foundation now a part time gig for a senior executive – it’s hard to imagine that Page is making room around the table for leadership that doesn’t think the company’s solutions are all based on building smarter, faster, more clever digital robots.
Amit Singhal, number two exec in Google’s critical search group, was asked in a recent issue of Bloomberg Business Week – “‘Can social context make search more relevant?” His answer: “Maybe, maybe not. Social is just one signal. It’s a tiny signal.”
It may be a tiny signal today, but it’s growing louder by the moment. Humans, it seems, like other humans. Robots – take note.