Google me

It is going to be hard for me to write something unbiased about Google.
I spent this past summer working as a business analyst intern for the AdSense team at Google European Headquarters in Dublin. After 10 weeks spent doing extremely interesting work, but also improving my foosball skills (it’s impressive how good the more senior guys are!), eating delicious sushi every day and receiving professional massages, I really cannot speak badly of this company.
To be fair, even before my internship, my opinion of Google had always been extremely positive.

There is something that deeply fascinates me about the Google story and which immediately emerges in Ken Auletta’s “Googled”: Sergey and Larry, the two founders, never gave up on their project despite the fact that many detractors were trying to persuade them that their company would have never being profitable or historically relevant.
In my mind, by Bernard Shaw’s terms, they behaved like “unreasonable men”. There’s no doubt that technological progress and innovation in these past few years owe a lot to Google and its founders.
Again, the lesson seems to be, to quote Terry Winograd, one of their mentors at Stanford, “don’t assume that things are done the right way because they were always done that way”.

Reading “Googled”, I could not avoid feeling the same way one feels when watching one of those (mainly American) movies whose ending is already known since the beginning.
The plot is simple: everyone is making fun of the main character and nothing seems to go in the right direction. But you already know he is going to “win” (Hey, otherwise they wouldn’t have shown the movie in prime time!) so you sit back with a smile on your face and look forward to the moment he is going to get what he deserves (typically success, money, the girl he loves, etc…).

But “Googled” isn’t just a book for those who want to know more anecdotes about the protagonists of Google’s development.
Auletta makes every effort to explain how Google makes money, a question that many people still ask me when they found out I interned there.
Behind Google’s more than $ 23 billion of revenues (in 2009) are AdWords and AdSense, its advertising products. Amongst the main success factors of these two products is the fact that they target users extremely well, without being particularly annoying, and they offer advertisers the possibility of paying on a CPC (Cost-per-click) basis, as opposed to a CPM (Cost per thousand impressions) basis, basically guaranteeing that money is not wasted on uninterested users.

AdWords is the tool companies and individuals use to advertise their products, services, etc…
AdSense, as defined by Google, is “a free program that enables website publishers of all sizes to display relevant Google ads and earn”.
What I really like about AdSense is how much it helped the long tail of publishers.
Before AdSense, Bloggers and other minor publishers could hardly negotiate deals with advertisers so they typically had no ads and no money, which often implied a short life. AdSense, simple as it is, helped (at least partially) in solving this problem.

For the “big guys”, such as the New York Times, AdSense is more of a secondary product. On the first page of the online version of the New York Times, you usually will find very few ads by Google (and if so, they will probably be at the bottom of the page) because major publications can still negotiate good terms with advertisers who are interested in “branding” themselves.
But if you open one of the articles, you most probably will find mainly ads by Google.
This is because an ad on a first page of a popular newspaper works much like an ad on television. The advertiser doesn’t know much about who is going to look at the ad. Therefore it pays on a per-impression basis and hopefully achieves its branding objective.
On the other hand, an article has more specific content and, if someone opens it, it can be assumed that she is interested in the specific topic of the piece.
Here Google can offer targeted ads, which are more likely to be clicked on and therefore generate more revenues for the publisher.

The impressive revenues generated from advertising have allowed Google to innovate on a global scale.
While Google has surely made some mistakes in the past and will most surely make other mistakes in the future, I believe it has done a lot for society. On top of AdSense promotion of blogging, I am thinking for example about how it increased people’s ability to access information (a crucial positive effect of the internet in general, as I mentioned in my previous post) or about the possibility it gave to small businesses to finally target a larger audience at low price, helping decrease the dominance of the biggest companies.
You can hate it or love it, but you definitely cannot ignore Google. It’s going to be interesting to see what it has in the pipeline the next few years.

Anecdotes

A love letter to the web and to social media

Part I: the attack

Over the past year, I have been engaged in several discussions as to whether the Web and Social Media are improving the world. In all these instances, I have tried to move the conversation towards what I believe to be the right topic: do the web and social media have the possibility of changing society for the best?
I definitely believe so and, after reading “Here comes everybody” by Clay Shirky, not only I reinforced my beliefs, but I hopefully developed better arguments to defend them.

A first consideration I want to make is that the diffusion of these social-oriented technologies is inevitable. Indeed, they are already part of our society! So the quicker we understand this, the quicker we can try to make the most out of their potential.

The main point of Shirky’s book, already evident in its subtitle, “The power of organizing without organizations”, is that the web and social media are radically improving the ability of people to form otherwise-latent groups.
These new social platforms (I did not choose the word “platforms” at random) rely on a very interesting formula:  do not coordinate users, but allow them to better coordinate themselves.
In the past (and I am not talking about a far away past) only institutions (whether commercial or political) could really bear the costs of organizing. Now power is in the reach of many more people.
Obama’s campaign (here’s a very interesting article about the way Obama’s online campaign worked), which relied on grassroots organizing, wouldn’t have been possible without the use of new media to let supporters independently organize themselves.

Other than based on the fact that it facilitates group-forming, I usually defend the internet because I believe it enables people to easily access information.
As much as we tend to give access to information for granted, most of the social differences that some people might impute to intelligence, come in fact from differences in access to information.
Access to information means more knowledge, better education, power.
For rural farmers in Bangladesh, where I spent about 2 months interning at Grameen Bank, being able to navigate the web meant for example knowing the fair price of a chicken or of a liter of milk so that no city-merchant could take advantage of them (previously ignoring the real market value of their goods, they were selling them at an unfairly low price).
Needless to say that to the young Bangladeshi I met, access to the Internet also meant better language skills, a better knowledge of history and politics, etc… The list would be too long.
This is true also for the young American or for the old German, for anyone indeed. But the web diminishes the bias that favored the wealthy side of the world, while allowing everyone (wealthy side included) to know more.
In brief, a world where more people know more!

Finally, another argument that I always bring forward in my pro-web crusade is that the more traditional media have so far mainly imposed content on the users, whilst new media allow users to contribute.
Shirky quotes an old saying that goes straight to my point: “freedom of the press exists only for those who own a press”. New technologies are giving a chance to everyone to express themselves and to reach a potentially very large audience with very low costs. At the same time they are making it harder for the few people in charge to impose their opinions on a bunch of “listeners”.

Part II: the defense

Usually, after I made a long passionate speech based on the arguments above, some people start sharing a bit of my enthusiasm, but I noticed how there are three arguments that my friends often use to challenge me. “Here comes everybody” directly or indirectly deals with them all.  This is what my friends usually say:

1) “Online there is a lot of bad content!”
True, bad content might be more evident now, but most (if not all) of what you can now witness online would have happened anyway, simply not under your scrutiny. As Shirky points out, most content is not directed to you. The only real difference is that you now know it exists.
My point on this issue, which Shirky would more elegantly define as the “net value” argument, is that I’d rather having even just one more genius published online than losing his wisdom because a single publisher decided he wasn’t worth it.
I’ll steal a consideration from Shirky’s epilogue: I “assume that the value of freedom outweighs the problems”.

2) “The web is killing professional journalism”
I would argue that journalism is a profession that needs to re-invented itself.
When scribes were “substituted” by the printing press, they thought it was going to be the end of culture and civilization. Instead, from that moment, culture became accessible to everyone, with its obvious egalitarian advantages.
It’d be very pretentious to think that the model we have so far represents the apex of journalism. It’d be like arguing that our current society is at the apex of human history. How sad would it be to live in a clearly imperfect world and assume that nothing could be improved?

I invite everyone (myself included) to remember that “the world is my representation” for everyone and in any époque. By reminding this, I mean that we should try to question our beliefs a little bit more. Because we are used to something being in a particular way, it doesn’t mean that it cannot be challenged and that it will always be the absolute truth. Definitions of good and bad have changed throughout history and are deemed to keep on changing. Journalism can change too. Journalists are now far more accountable than they used to be and I believe society at large is gaining from this.

3) ”Social Media are an awful threat to privacy”
While the problem arises, I again avail myself of the “net value” argument. While we might have to be a little bit more careful when we don’t want everyone to know everything about us, so it is true for the people in charge. Maybe it is because I come from Italy, but I do welcome a little bit more of transparency (nonetheless, at a rate of one scandal per day, the current government is still in charge).

What’s next?

So what’s the next step to make this new media revolution more effective?
I’ll leave some concrete answers to Shirky:
“If there was a structure that allowed for internet-friendly incorporation, we might see an increase in collective action directed at creating and sustaining things, instead of being protest dominated, as it is today”. “People might be able to start using these tools to bypass government or commercial entities in favor of taking on problems directly”.

I truly believe these new technologies have an enormous potential.
Sure, I don’t believe that the web and social media only bring good news and it is indeed important to look at things with critical eyes, but as they are now an integral part of our society, I would invite everyone to work hard on making the most out of their incredible potential, instead of concentrating on despising them.
In fact, it is going to be up to us to make them as successful as possible in improving our society.