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Rory Cellan-Jones

Can Google still innovate?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 7 Jan 09, 15:55 GMT

It was only after I had driven three times round the Google campus without finding building 43 that I really got a sense of the scale of the place.

We had come to Mountain View to find out whether the search giant was still nimble enough to innovate and just getting to our appointment was a challenge which proved how big the company had grown.

Once inside, we were allowed to roam around virtually unfettered and get all those shots that have become something of a cliche in depictions of Google. The kitchens where employees come to make a skinny decaf latte and grab some of the free fruit or a chocolate bar.

The play area strewn with Lego - apparently the founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are huge fans. The pool table with its notice reminding players not to thump their pool cues on the floor - presumably to avoid disturbing any geniuses working below.

Despite the sheer scale of Google its headquarters still has the feel of a college rather than a company with groups of people strolling around holding a laptop (they each get to choose whether it's a Mac or a PC) and talking intensely.

But we'd come to see Matt Cutts, an engineer here since 2000, which in Google time makes him a real greybeard. He told me that when he arrived they had one building, the "Googleplex" and when they added another one for the sales team that became known as the "moneyplex". Now even he finds it difficult to navigate around the campus.

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Google makes great play of the fact that it allows engineers to spend 20% of their times on blue-sky projects, personal hobby horses which may end up going nowhere but may produce a Google News.

Matt insisted that the early spirit of freedom and experimentation was still there in the culture. But when I pressed him on whether even Google could afford that luxury in harder times, he admitted that people like him now had perhaps to be a little more focussed on the bottom line. But he said the one day in five spent on personal projects was not being discarded.

Despite the ventures into new areas - the Chrome web browser, voice-activated search, Android - Google still lives and dies by the quality of its search engine. Matt Cutts told me 400 adjustments to search had been made last year. I'm sure the people over at the "moneyplex", watching anxiously to see whether the growth in online advertising spending falters, remind their colleagues daily of the need to keep focussed on the core business which has proved such a huge money-spinner.

Outside Building 43, we found the skeleton of a dinosaur, one of the artefacts adorning the campus. A reminder, perhaps to the engineers inside of what happens to those who stop innovating. But right now Google appears more likely to make its rivals extinct.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    "presumably to avoid disturbing any geniuses working below" that or they just consider it impolite to break the ballast in the cues ;-)

  • Comment number 2.

    Rory:

    Can Google still innovate? Yes, they can always innovate and still be an important company....

    PS: I do have an email account with Google....

    ~Dennis Junior~

  • Comment number 3.

    They've persuaded me to use Google Chrome, Google Mail, Google Reader, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Google Desktop and a few other services (including plain old Google Search, dozens of times every day), so they must be doing something right. I look forward to seeing what they come up with in future.

  • Comment number 4.

    There is a major issue with Google's innovation style that gets lost in the Hype.

    They are terrible at polishing products in a timely fashion.

    Take for example Google Apps, probably one of the cleverer of their offerings.

    However, there is a plethora of small bugs, incomplete features and missing vital features, regularly pointed up on their own Google Apps Group, that have seen no movement when it comes to fixing in months.

    Unlike many other open source solutions, where when a problem is found, the developers and community try and find some sort of solution in a hurry, Google appears to "leave it for another day."

    The users, who after all through their exposure to advertising are making Google money, dont even get the hope from regular posts saying things like, "Yes, we see the problem, and this is what we are doing about it ... "

    Instead there is a virtual silence, or just a one off comment on a blog with no follow up.

    It feels like they think it is more important to their Brand Profile to keep coming up with new offerings rather than just getting the existing ones working properly.

    For instance, millions of users of Google Sites are desperately waiting for some recoverable way of backing up their site - something talked about by google once many, many months ago, and then mysteriously removed from their help pages.

  • Comment number 5.

    Have you seen Googles new favicon? It's a Windows logo turned through ninety degrees with a white "g" superimposed.

    Should we read anything into this?

  • Comment number 6.

    During my interview with Barry Swartz from the Search Engine Roundtable http://www.businessservicesuk.com/businessarticle/Interview_With_Barry_Schwartz_85 we discussed in detail Google and its future direction and how it was not just maintaing the lead as the number 1 search engine provider but building on it

  • Comment number 7.

    Google got to where they are by providing a better search experience at a time when most engines delivered poor results. They remain where they are by delivering new ways to search and, most importantly, monetize information access.

    Most of the projects at http://labs.google.com/ and the like never make it to full public use, but the killer ones do (maps, local search, etc) and they make big money for Google. To them innovation = money, so I doubt we'll see them stop trying new things anytime soon.

 

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