Updated from 8:49 a.m. EDTFor most of its short life, Google ( GOOG) has been blessed with positive press. But as it grows more successful and more influential over the Internet's development, the tone has turned darker. In recent months, news publications and blogs have chided it for everything from harming French literature to coming up short on customer service to lacking a coherent, overarching strategy. So, in an effort to be a little better understood -- or at least a little less misunderstood -- Google marshaled these increasingly critical reporters, bloggers and industry analysts and explained what the search company (er, sorry -- the organizer of the world's information) is all about. Google CEO Eric Schmidt and co-founder Sergei Brin were a little more forthcoming than usual, even unveiling new initiatives that dazzled the crowd. Like everything else it does, Google labored hard to handle the presentation differently. It hewed to a Star Wars theme, a joke that felt stretched when someone pulled out a light saber and that definitely grew absurd around the third or fourth Yoda quote. There were bizarre attempts at personal touches, such as mentioning the 2,300 pounds of chicken and the 112 pounds of wheatgrass its employees consume each month, or the executives who fret about which socks to wear. But we often forgive Google its occasional very annoying quirks because we love the technology it produces. And if you're an investor, you love the massive revenue and profit that the technology in turn produces. Toward that end, Google gave peeks at a few new technologies that will help keep its cutting edge sharp for a while. In addition to
While Google already offers the different pieces that could make up a one-stop home page -- such as news, mail, movie listings and local search -- it took the new technology of RSS feeds to push Google into the portal business. Marissa Mayer, who heads up Google's consumer Web products group, maintained that the personalized page came in response to user requests. But its timing, arriving just as RSS feeds are starting to include advertisements, suggests an equally compelling incentive. Google also introduced three other technologies that, while they won't be monetized for some time, will draw strong consumer interest. The first was an engine that can translate a number of foreign languages in a way that, judging from the demonstrations, is vastly superior to anything on the Web today. Google used its huge computer network to scan thousands of documents, such as those translated into several languages by the United Nations, to recognize familiar patterns. Another technology improved on Google's ability to organize search results. Marius Rasio, a research scientist, showed how the new search engine can single out specific dates from a number of pages -- determining a rough date for the invention of the transistor, listing the years that Brazil won the World Cup and offering a timeline of "important dates" in Marilyn Monroe's life (which ranked her Playboy photo shoot as more important than her marriage to Joe DiMaggio). Even more impressive was Google Earth, an improvement to the popular Google Maps feature and its satellite photos. Relying on Google's Keyhole software and a software developed by NASA, the new maps enable users to scan a global map, fly over a relief map of a site such as the Grand Canyon, then zoom in to see individual houses. Google executives also tried to respond frankly to a wide range of questions that have been dogging the company. Schmidt grew prickly once or twice, such as when a journalist kept returning to the issue of whether Google's project to scan the world's books into searchable files would prioritize English-language books over others. Schmidt adamantly asserted otherwise and demanded proof of the allegation.
Schmidt also tried to explain why the company withholds metrics that investors would like to know, such as the number of servers or ad rates charged. He said the company debated over whether to disclose such numbers but, given the company's unique nature and how closely people follow its every move, decided against it. "I know it makes everyone's jobs harder," Schmidt said. "But we made a decision about what information to release because we didn't want to mislead people." The argument was a little specious, but it seemed to be this: Given a choice between causing speculation by releasing information and causing speculation by withholding information, Google is safer withholding it, since it's less likely to attract shareholder lawsuits. Many of the questions that might touch on any sensitive figures were deflected with Jedi-like dexterity. Asked how many servers Google uses to handle queries, Google replied, "We don't give out the exact number. The answer is lots and lots." Asked how it differentiates itself from rivals like Yahoo! ( YHOO) and Amazon's ( AMZN) A9 search service, Google said, "We take pride in what we do and we're happy where we stand." Asked if opening an office in China violated its don't-be-evil ur-rule, Google said, "We don't have anything else to announce now." Some questions centered on Google's recent pushes into advertising. If Google is organizing the world's information, why is it worrying so much about ads? Google's response: Ads are a kind of content that, properly targeted, are less of an annoyance and more like information. The journalists in the room, whose professions are based on separating editorial content from ads, took that one pretty well. Google also dished out plenty of examples of what it seems to regard as a flippant, off-the-wall ethic and its occasional flashes of arrogance. The company touted the day as a "Factory Tour," but that was another one of its cute jokes: Just as Google has no factory, the crowd received no tour. But Google did wheel in a couple of servers to the conference room just in case the bumpkins in attendance had never seen one.
There was a long anecdote about an engineer named Bwolen who got married during his lunch break then returned to work. Bwolen was rewarded with a PowerPoint slide in the "factory tour" that superimposed his face on the cartoon body of a superhero bounding in mid-air. Later, vice president Tim Armstrong was praised for spending so much time at work he couldn't even sort out his socks in the laundry. It's at once a little reassuring and more than a little disturbing to think the future is in the hands of guys like this. I'm all for better search, but not if it comes at the cost of people missing out on having a life. The big glitch of the day came when the Webcast version of the tour inadvertently showed a slide of Google's new personalized search page hours before it was to be announced (someone at Google won't be getting their wheatgrass today). That sparked a mad scramble among bloggers to post screen shots of the new product. Even the company organizing the world's information, it seems, sometimes lets it slips through its fingers.