Google Week, Day 5: The Google corporate culture that makes it all possible


Google staff people - GooglersThis is the conclusion of my five-day series on Google. Previously I’ve looked at Google’s #1 position in search and search advertising, display advertising, mobile search and advertising, video ads, YouTube, and its rising presence in social media (YouTube is both a video and a social media site), and analytics.

In an industry that is constantly shifting — remember when AOL was top dog and Myspace was the #1 social media site and Apple was almost bankrupt? – Google has been able to sustain its dominant position in search for over a decade while making significant profits and successfully moving into many other areas. That takes a remarkable corporate culture.

In 1996 Larry Page and Sergey Brin were doing graduate research work at Stanford and they had an insight that people at no other search engine had had before: the links pointing to a site from other quality sites were a kind of vote vouching for the value of that site’s content, and so those links should be a major factor in ranking search results. They called their algorithm PageRank (a double entendre involving web pages and Larry Page’s name).

It’s not like there weren’t already important search engines: Lycos, Infoseek, AltaVista, Excite, Inktomi, HotBot and Ask Jeeves were just a few. But people would try to game them by putting the same word on the page many, many times, sometimes with white text against a white background, or use unrelated popular terms in metatags just to build traffic, etc. Google had developed a way to search faster and better. They combined this algorithm with a simple and somewhat whimsical interface (“I’m feeling lucky”), which separated it from other search engines and indexes with much more cluttered interfaces, and went live.

Google home page from late 1990s

Better technology and a better user experience were an unbeatable combination. Google quickly gained a following after its public launch in 1997. The next year PC Magazine called it the search engine of choice. By 2002 it was the number one U.S. search engine and by 2009 it had roughly the two-thirds U.S. market share that it still has today.

Today we use an amazing technology and are completely blasé about it: Every day Google indexes over 20 billion pages. It answers more than 3 billion search queries in 146 languages, matching the results with well-targeted ads, in about half a second; it has never seen about 15% of each day’s search queries before. “Google” — a play on “googol”, a very large number, specifically a 1 followed by 100 zeroes — was a truly prescient choice for a name.

social media map in style of map from Middle Ages

This is one of my favorite graphics: it shows the social media world of 2007. (Drawn by Randall Monroe, I love that it feels like a medieval map of the world with uncertain borders and hidden kingdoms.) Notice how large Myspace is, the presence of Friendster, and how small Facebook is. It is a great reminder of how quickly things can change online. But the only thing that’s changed for Google in that time is how much it has successfully expanded on its core mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

Think of all the ways in which Google has stayed on mission while expanding out from its original desktop text search service (in no particular order):

  • Search, display, video and other ads managed through AdWords
  • AdSense for publishers
  • DoubleClick Digital Marketing software
  • YouTube
  • Google Analytics
  • Wildfire social media software
  • Image and video search
  • Online maps (Remember MapQuest? Google’s scrolling Ajax maps were obviously superior)
  • Google Street View
  • Google Earth
  • Scanning over 20 million books and making portions available online
  • Android mobile operating system
  • Mobile search
  • Chrome browser
  • Chrome operating system
  • Chromebook
  • Google Translate
  • Gmail
  • Google+
  • Hangouts with free video
  • Google Trends
  • Google Finance
  • Google Apps
  • Google Drive
  • Google Goggles
  • Google Shopping (originally named Froogle, what a fun name)
  • Google Wallet
  • Google Glass
  • Google X
  • Self-driving cars
  • Project Loon balloons to provide internet access to people in remote areas
  • Contact lenses that can help manage diabetes
  • Purchase of Nest

And more. With Google, there’s always more. Some of these are industry leaders, some are in development and close to market, and some are what Google calls “moonshots”. And other initiatives have failed. But Google, like many other tech companies, knows that if you’re truly pushing boundaries you have to fail sometimes, and the best way to do it is to fail fast, learn and move on.

There’s also a synergy between many of these endeavors. Android, which is now the #1 mobile operating system with 80-plus percent market share, assured that Google could successfully transition its search from desktop to mobile. And the crowdsourcing of data from millions of mobile users makes possible those real-time traffic updates on Google Maps.

Now consider a near-future scenario: Google is trying out same-day delivery in the area from San Francisco to San Jose. Now mix in their self-driving cars with robots Google has been acquiring and working on and you have a same-day delivery service with zero labors costs, and one which is far more reliable than a service using drones when there is sketchy weather.

You can’t eat for eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours a day – all you can for eight hours is work.

                                                                                             –William Faulkner

At the same time as this great technological and business success, Google has frequently been ranked the best place to work in the U.S.

What is it about the Google culture that makes this possible?

The lavish employee perks get a lot of publicity: free food, on-site physicals and gyms, free use of electric cars and bikes, nap pods, creative office spaces, etc. And benefits, like excellent maternity leave, are valuable. But really bright, committed people don’t do it for free food; any decent job will feed you, in one way or another. They do it for the challenge, for the opportunity to work with other really bright, committed people on something important.

Laszlo Bock, Google’s SVP of People Operations, confirms that it’s about “passion, not perks” in an essay.  He describes three main conditions central to Google’s corporate culture and success:

Mission: Bock says “People want all that time [at work] to mean something… more than ‘just’ searching the internet or linking friends.” Google has that covered. Google brings knowledge to billions. It helps businesses increase brand awareness, leads and sales through online marketing, and directly grow revenue from AdSense ads. Its huge server farms use massive amounts of energy to run and stay cool, so Google is working toward powering the company with 100% renewable energy – which may also become a new business line offered to others. Imagine how many of the 30,000-plus annual U.S. automobile accident deaths we could eliminate with self-driving cars that, in over 300,000 miles of tests, have been accident-free. (Okay, there was that one incident when a Google car was rear-ended by a car driven by a person.) Imagine a joint-venture with Tesla for a self-driving electric car. Think of remote surgery assisted via Google Glass.

Transparency: Great amounts of company information are shared internally – including financials, product roadmaps, prototypes, launch plans, and goals — and Googlers are trusted to keep the information confidential. This not only gives them more information to act on, but also demonstrates trust in them.

Voice: Aside from weekly, company-wide meetings hosted by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in which 30 minutes are set aside for Googlers to ask questions, Google has many other ways for employees to voice their questions, concerns and suggestions. These include the Google Universal Ticketing System (GUTS), a way to report any issue; “Googlegeist” surveys; employee reviews of managers; and “robust, data-driven discussions.”

Is Google perfect? Of course not. No person or company is, and if you ask a number of people you would get substantial disagreement about what perfect even means. But Google has developed the internal communications and culture that enable it to continuously innovate and improve while making timely decisions and not getting bogged down in process.

Bock concludes his essay by saying, “And personally, I believe this is an insight about the human condition. People look for meaning in their work. People want to know what’s happening in their environment. People want to have some ability to shape that environment. Mission. Transparency. Voice. These three components of our culture create a virtuous cycle of attraction, community, engagement, and innovation.”

Easy to say, difficult to do. Google has pulled it off and that has helped it successfully and profitably scale while retaining much of the passion and inventiveness of a start-up.

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2 thoughts on “Google Week, Day 5: The Google corporate culture that makes it all possible

  1. Christiane

    Really cool blog. It’s so interesting to see the evolution of Google. How it started and how far it has evolved. I LOVE the 2007 social media map! I think I have to disagree with you, too. Google is perfect! But I guess that’s my nerdy side shining through. I really enjoyed your post, Louis. I’ll be coming back for more.

  2. Louis Gudema Post author

    Hi Christiane – Thanks for your comment; glad that you liked the post. I’ll be looking forward to your future comments.

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