Google’s Brian Bershad on the Search Giant’s “Second Act,” and Building More Trust

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of how in August of 2005, people who searched for “Katrina” were not likely to automatically get results related to hurricanes or New Orleans. Google’s engineers work to make sure search results stay relevant and timely in reaction to news events that change what certain terms mean. This is one feature that distinguishes Google from other search engines, he said. “News changes what people are interested in quickly,” he said.

On relevance of search results: The company’s goal is to give the user the search result they want, and get them off the site fast. If the user comes back to re-do a search, that’s judged a failure. This is tricky, because Google needs to pick up on what a user means when they type in some vague term like “fruit.” It usually wouldn’t be a definition, but probably something else. “We want to give the user what they want,” he said.

On speed: Google measures performance on search results down to the millisecond, and every one counts. “When we improve speed, we improve revenues,” he said. Getting all sorts of data centers humming in coordination, with all sorts of redundancy in case hardware breaks down is critical. A couple months ago, the Google search engine went down for a few minutes, and although the world didn’t stop spinning on its axis, it seemed like it for a while inside the company, he said. “There’s a saying at the company that speed is our favorite feature,” Bershad said.

On news: “Our model is to take what newspaper publishers are willing to give us,” Bershad says. The latest experiment, sure to cause heartburn in many publishers’ offices, is to place ads on Google News, which aggregates all that costly newsgathering that other people do. Google is experimenting with this model as long as it doesn’t turn off its users, Bershad said.

On how Google and Amazon have different relationships with customers: Aside from Google Checkout, the company’s online payment service, Google doesn’t store the kind of personal information on its customers that Amazon does, like credit card numbers and detailed history on buying habits. (Google did, however, introduce a behavioral targeting system for its keyword-based ads this week.) “With Amazon, there’s money at stake. You give them your credit card and trust them not to clean out your bank account,” Bershad said. Google would like to have more personal information to help make search results more relevant for individuals, but this is a tricky balancing act with concerns about privacy. Google has a strong bond of trust with users, but isn’t at the same level yet as Amazon, he said. “Google is more at a distance,” he said.

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