November 16, 2005

Bottom-up Innovation At Google Or Why Sergey Brin Doesn't Believe in Google Base

Sergey Brin probably doesn't think Google Base will succeed. Google Base is the company's latest endeavor that might lead to creation of a semantic web. A little over a month ago in a video recorded lecture at UC Berkeley, he called the idea of semantic web "a little bit inverted." Addressing a room full of students, when asked about the future of tagging and semantics in search, he said:
I think that tagging and semantics are great as long as the computers are doing the tagging and semantics. Because if people are doing tagging and semantics for the computers then there's something a little bit inverted about the relationship between the man and machine there. I'm a big believer in creating lots of innovative algorithms that can extract this kind of structural knowledge from lots of text that's out there created by people all the time. But I'm not a big believer that... you know, you're just gonna have lots of people enter the data very carefully so machines can then process it.

Sergey Brin, at UC Berkeley 3rd Oct, 2005
Watch this quote on video (Real Player)

Google Base launched earlier today aims to do precisely what Sergey hinted might never happen at Google - have lots of people enter the data very carefully so machines can then process it. Google has taken the first step to lay the foundation for a semantic web. As always, they're not doing it the way everyone else thinks of semantics and social tagging (they don't even call it that and rightly so, people don't care about those things). Instead of making people add tags to their content, Google wants them to submit content and create tags of their own. This will make their content more accessible for searchers and will also open up all sorts of possibilities, such as, a marketplace rivaling Ebay, classified service competing with Craigslist or even a database that makes SQL obsolete.

These are just some of the services that are being talked about right now. At this stage however, Google Base is just an experiment that allows people to add their content and tag it. There's no way of knowing if it will catch on in a really big way to reach critical mass or whether it will languish after some time as Sergey might imagine. In the lecture video1 Sergey also said that he never believed in Wikipedia at one time and was surprised when it took off. Maybe he'll be proven wrong once again.

Google Base is a remarkable of example of bottom up innovation at Google. The team that started and launched the project without their CEO's full faith behind it might never have been able to do this at another company. Yet, it's common at Google for employees to proceed without top management support. In another appearance last month, this time at Web2.0 conference2, Sergey admitted:
"A lot of our successes don't have anything to do with anything our executives thought were a good idea."

Bindu Reddy3, the Product Manager that Google's blog4 credits for Google Base5 once blogged about Google's unique organisational structure:
"Fundamentally, I believe that the organization of a corporation enables employees to please their boss more than work towards the 'greater good' of the company. The larger the company, the less the motivation for an individual employee to work for the company and more his/her motivation to work for the immediate superiors. Google eliminates this problem with an extremely flat organization."

Just as with Google Base, Sergey was similarly skeptical of Google News when it was conceived by another employee, Krishna Bharat. In an interview last year6 at World Economic Forum in Davos he said:
The researcher who developed Google News... This was what he felt was really important, and in fact, I was skeptical of this, to be perfectly honest. I felt, you know, it's kind of annoying. Why do you want five choices for the same story? He pursued it and I think it's very successful and I think it's nice to get the worldwide discussions now. So, that's sort of how that happened. Perhaps we should be sort of designing our strategy more, but our R&D [people] are most productive when working on what they're motivated by. That has to be a pretty big consideration.

This shows again the genius of Google and why it's different from any other company.

Notes and Links

1 Sergey's UC Berkeley lecture, complete video (Real Player)
2 Sergey Brin's Web 2.0 Interview
3 Bindu Reddy's old blog, Google cache version
4 Google Blog's entry on Google Base by Bindu Reddy
5 The actual inspiration behind Google Base might be Paul Ford who outlined his vision of a semantic web created by Google about two and a half years ago.
6 Sergey's interview at World Economic Forum, Davos