Field Notes From The GooglePlex

On a day when most normal people would head to the beach, yours truly decided to head down to the sprawling GooglePlex, in Mountain View. This past Friday driving down Highway 101, you could feel that it would be the kind of day when the mercury would rise to record levels. Still, the prospect of getting a five-hour briefing from one of the more interesting technology companies was too alluring to pass up.
Most of the briefings were meant to be on background, but observations are for public consumption. Enduring the heat, and leaving the comfort of my double-screen deluxe digs, the biggest thing that was on my mind was – is there a method to the madness that is Google (GOOG)?

You can read about a company, you can chat with executives, and you can talk as much as you want with the analysts, but in the end it boils down to spending time, experiencing and observing company executives in their natural habitat. Similar visits to Yahoo (YHOO) (and other Silicon Valley giants) have helped form opinions about those companies.

So what mysteries did GooglePlex behold? Would it be a tightly scripted, public relations exercise, where one would have to read between the lines? Or would be it be a candid chat that would answer some of the tougher questions?

The inner cynic inside me screamed – dude, you are going to get lot of spin. As I walked towards Building 43, my initial thoughts focused on the sheer size and scope of the company, and what it must be doing to the chefs who dream up dazzling dishes for the Googlers! Not to mention the links in the chain of command!

Before the daydreaming got out of control, I ran into Chris De Bona, the open source evangelist at Google. A quick hello, a cup of black coffee, and soon I was chatting with Matt Cutts, one of Google’s software gurus

“When we were small, it was helpful to be very secretive, and it got into the corporate culture,” said Cutts, in response to my observation about this newfound openness (not that there is anything wrong with it) at a company he has worked for nearly six years. “I think we are talking more about our products now.”

Cutts explained some of the recent work Google has done in search, and its future plans. Cutts also pointed out that as the web grows in size and scope, Google is growing its infrastructure – both software and hardware – and growing with the web, improving its search results, making the crawl process faster. “In 2003, we used to crawl the web once a month, and now we update everything in two to three days,” he said. Some day, perhaps it will be hours, and then minutes.

(I wonder if we could come up with what could be an equivalent of Moore’s Law of Search, that could quantify the size of the web index, and how it correlates to bandwidth, storage and processing cycles.)

A nagging question, perhaps a tad too simplistic, I wanted an answer for — the impact of AJAX on search results. AJAX seems just the kind of thing that could outfox the crawlers. Cutts did agree that the AJAX was making life tougher for crawlers, and it was one of the areas Google was devoting a lot of its attention and time. “We are spending a lot of time on doing better analysis of JavaScript,” he said.

Cutts left me pondering about the importance of search to Google, and how it was still the brains behind the entire show. Following him were folks spearheading the Google WiFi division, Google Talk, Google Finance and Google Checkout. Their thoughts would surely find their way into posts on those topics, but it was head of Google Checkout, Benjamin Ling who brought home the real truth about Google – it is all about advertising and always has been.

He explained that if you spend $1,000 on the Google ad network, Google Checkout would process $10,000 worth of transactions for free. The more you spend on ads, the more transaction fee savings you get. “It will hyper accelerate our system,” he said. And with a twinkle in his eye, he said, “We make all our money on advertising.” Just like GMail that creates ad-inventory, and so will other little features that may or may not find mass adoption.

Five hours later, as I walked out of GooglePlex, I am more convinced than ever before – its all about search and advertising. Rest is just that … rest!