A “Fireside Chat” with Google’s Sergey Brin

Is Google God? When will the company finally go public? Search Engine Watch editor Danny Sullivan poses these and other questions to Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, August 18-21, 2003, San Jose, CA.

Seated on either side of a faux fire, Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch.com, held a conversation with Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder and President, Technology. For most of the standing-room-only audience, the early morning fireside chat produced a lot of warmth, and occasionally shed a little light on Google’s plans.

Sullivan started things off by asking Brin when he first realized just how iconic Google had become.

Brin said it was when he received a letter and a photo from a man with heart pains whose family had used Google to determine if he was having a serious heart attack. With their questions answered, the family got the victim quick medical attention, and a subsequent triple-bypass procedure saved his life. “That was a pretty significant moment,” said Brin, adding, “People really care about their information – it’s their career, it’s their health, it’s their education, so the impact of Google on the world psyche is much greater.”

Sullivan asked about the people who say Google is too powerful as well as those who think it’s god-like in perfection.

Brin answered, “I think people tend to exaggerate Google’s significance in both directions. Some say Google is God. Others say Google is Satan. But if they think Google is too powerful, remember that with search engines, unlike other companies, all it takes is a single click to go to another search engine. People come to Google because they choose to. We don’t trick them.”

Sullivan said, “You’ve had a variety of new things come up over the past year. What do you like the most?”

Brin: “I’m really excited about our self-serve AdSense. I think this is changing webmasters’ lives. They can make money on something that was a hobby, and they don’t have to do weird search deals. Think of it. We send you checks. I’m hoping that it can help spur the next generation of content development on the Web. You can’t do a good job of search unless what you’re looking for is out there.”

Sullivan: “Is Google a technology company or a media company?”

Brin: “Google has an important technology component. But we also care about the utility of the technology and for our advertising network and publishers. So, I think we’re a technology company that applies technology to media.”

Sullivan then asked about Google’s plans for an initial public offering (IPO).

Brin answered, “It’s something that we debate periodically at board meetings – not every board meeting – every other or every third – and then we move on to the next topic. It’s not the most pressing thing for us. We are profitable, so we don’t need the cash. But it might be nice to have the currency of being a public company to do acquisitions and things like that. Still, there are significant management distractions involved in being a public company. So, it’s always kind of a toss-up. That’s not to say we’re never going to do it. There’s a good chance that eventually we will. The summary is that it could go either way.”

Sullivan: “Are there any circumstances in which Google might buy Microsoft? Or, the opposite?”

Brin quipped, “I think there are a lot of liabilities in acquiring Microsoft.” When the audience’s laughter died down, he added, “Over time, there have been a number of companies that have approached us. We’ve always said ‘no’ thus far. We think our company has a lot of promise. We’re pleased with the trajectory that we’re on and so it’s not a very likely thing to happen in my mind. But it would be silly to discount a serious approach from anyone.”

Sullivan asked a related question about the recent consolidation in the search market.

Brin answered, “The whole industry is a little bit crazy right now. I personally prefer the previous generation, when we could go about building our search technology. But we are where we are. Unfortunately, there are companies out there with trigger fingers. There will be integration challenges for all of these companies. That’s why we focus on small companies with a clear cultural fit.”

Sullivan: “What do you do to go beyond links as a way of improving results?”

Brin: “There are completely new ranking technologies that we are working on. We try about a half-dozen a month and launch on a limited test basis. We fundamentally work with all of the world’s knowledge. There are just different ways to approach that. There are many, many things you can do, and we’re not going to exhaust them any time soon. Over time, our searches will only get better.”

Sullivan: “Will you ever consider supporting paid inclusion?”

Brin: “You want to keep any kind of payment separate from organic search results. I think it’s important to distinguish those things.”

Sullivan asked, “What do you think remains largely unknown about Google?”

Brin answered, “The tilde operator,” a new search command that enables users to search not only for a particular keyword, but also for its synonyms. This is accomplished by placing a ˜ character directly in front of the keyword in the search box. He also mentioned, “The calculator,” which enables users to solve mathematic problems by entering numeric expressions into the google.com or the Google Toolbar search boxes. The engineer who created the calculator was supposed to be working on our “spelling system,” added Brin.

Greg Jarboe is the co-founder of SEO-PR.

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