Readings: Google in the News

Two interesting stories in the New York Times appeared this weekend, both relating to Google:

1) “Google Grows, and Works to Retain Nimble Minds” [New York Times] – a nice explainer about Google’s unparalleled growth, and a side effect: employees who are leaving the company for smaller companies or for start-ups:

Recent departures include low-level engineers, product managers and prominent managers like Lars Rasmussen, who helped create Google Maps and Wave before he left for Facebook, and Omar Hamoui, the founder of AdMob who was vice president for mobile ads at Google and is now looking for his next project. At least 142 of Facebook’s employees came from Google.

I like this phrase used in the article: “Corporate sclerosis.” In the last five years, Google has grown from 5,000 to 23,000 employees, while its revenue has increased by more than seven-fold, from $3.2B to $23.7B. So what is Google doing to prevent employees from leaving the company?

Google is taking aggressive steps to retain employees, particularly those with start-up ambitions. Google has given several engineers who said they were leaving to start new companies the chance to start them within Google. They work independently and can recruit other engineers and use Google’s resources, like its code base and servers, according to half a dozen employees.

This is a highly innovative move, and rarely seen in other companies (I think). Of course, financial motivation is there too: this month Google gave every employee in the company a 10% raise.

Nevertheless, the biggest takeaway for me was this: if someone has the drive to do something on their own, compensation packages and promises to work on independent projects can only go so far. This was the best line in the story:

Part of Google’s problem is that the best engineers are often the ones with the most entrepreneurial thirst.

Is it that surprising that these engineers are looking for greener (but perhaps riskier) pastures?

2) “A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web” [New York Times] – an amazing and horrifying story of a sunglasses merchant who thrives on negative feedback to boost his Google search rankings (which leads to more people buying fake/poor merchandise from him). Not much is below this merchant: threats, intimidation, non-delivery (or fake delivery) of product.

This story left me fuming (I refuse to provide the name of the merchant). What’s interesting, and other people have pointed this out, is that Google does not appear to perform sentiment analysis; that is, a “negative” link to a website might be as beneficial as a link of praise, and Google’s algorithms (which are, in fact, a secret) don’t distinguish between them. So for instance, we have this from the NYT, where people posted complaints about the company:

Between then and now, hundreds of additional tirades have been tacked to Get Satisfaction, ComplaintsBoard.com, ConsumerAffairs.com and sites like them.

But because those web sites are reputable, if they point to the offending website, it’s essentially more “Google juice” and the merchant described in the article benefits.

One last note: the reporter, David Segal, appears to take a liking to this merchant:

It’s almost painful to say, but Mr. [Redacted] is amusing company. He is sharp and entertaining, although much of the entertainment comes from the way he flouts the conventions of courtesy, which he does with such a perverse flair that it can seem like a kind of performance art.

I thought the sympathy was undeserving, but perhaps this is a psychological phenomenon: if we tend to get close to someone (even if we do so objectively, such as reporting for the New York Times), we tend to begin liking the one we’re with to help us cope and/or help us approach the subject. Familiarity breeds good journalism, it seems.

Update (12/01/10): News of the New York Times article has made the rounds at Google headquarters, and Google has acted swiftly. In a blog post titled “Being Bad To Your Customers Is Bad for Business,” Google explains that they have modified their search rankings, incorporating user reviews in Google’s search algorithm:

Instead, in the last few days we developed an algorithmic solution which detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience. The algorithm we incorporated into our search rankings represents an initial solution to this issue, and Google users are now getting a better experience as a result.

Huge props to Google on this quick, worthy update.

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