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March 10, 2011

SMX West 2011: A Keynote Conversation with Steven Levy

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Hello, and welcome to the last day of SMX West! I’m actually a little sad it’s over. Maybe Bruce will let me be an embedded reporter for all the conferences and speaking engagements he has. I wouldn’t mind traveling to the globe, living out of a suitcase, just me and my laptop. Bruce?

SMX West logo

Hey, speaking of embedded reporters, the keynote speaker today, Steven Levy of Wired Magazine, spent two years embedded at Google while doing research for his book, In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives,” which is coming out in a couple weeks. He’s going to share his insider insight with all of us this morning.

Moderator: Chris Sherman, Executive Editor, Search Engine Land

It’s really crowded in here today. I’m a little concerned with all the ruckus of people trying to get situated around me that my coffee is going to end up in my lap.

Chris Sherman is talking about how Steven has experience with Google going all the way back to 1999. He has previous books called “Hackers” and “Crypto”.

Chris asks how he got the idea to do this with Google.

SMX 2011 Keynote Speaker Steven Levy

Steven: Hackers was a subculture when I wrote about the book. “Crypto” also was a subculture, but the whole topic has become more mainstream, It’s a natural transition to write about things that are becoming more mainstream. People used to not know about Google.

He heard about Google in 1998 and thought it was an important startup. He called the public relations woman at Google and he went to meet them in 1999. He said everyone there was decked out in Halloween gear; Sergey was dressed like a cow with disgusting udders on his chest.

Then the cow took him into the room and taught him PageRank.

Steven says Google has a program where the associate product managers earn their stripes. In 2007, Google invited Steven to go along on a trip across the world with that team. That’s when he realized how different Google was. The way they think, all the time – even in their off time.

Danny Sullivan: You’ve said Google is such a data-driven company, you’ve also covered and spent time with Apple, which doesn’t care what the data is, they just do it. Is that a fair assessment?

Steven: Apple makes electronics and Google is an Internet-based company, so their job is to provide information. Everything on the inside is measured at Google. So it makes sense.

Chris: Google is coming under a lot of pressure for transparency in its algorithm, how do you think they should respond to this?

Steven: Legally, they can do what they want but more than that, they say that philosophically, they are out to serve their users. So, for the sites that rank, it’s Google trying to judge what’s best for its users. It gets complicated by the fact that Google is so powerful.

Danny brings up the recent algo changes, the Farmer/Panda update,  and says how it’s ultimately expressing an opinion of Google that certain sites aren’t serving their users.

Steven: I always felt that Google didn’t do a great job at a search for hotels. You people have done a great job at making the results not so useful [people laugh]. He said he has found more useful results now after the algo update. Where it gets sticky is where good content gets knocked down. And Google know it’s not perfect.

Chris: Google’s internal culture – how is the interaction and how they work together?

Steven: It’s very cordial. They refer to the non-technical people as mental athletes. You have to come to grips with the fact that the engineers rule. You know your place and you have to be happy with that. It’s a kingdom of engineers. Everyone is respected but they never have the status of the engineers.

Google will say now their hiring process is not as convoluted as it used to be. It used to take 10 or 20 interviews. Then Google realized it was getting out of hand. They used to insist on SAT scores and grades even if they’ve been in the professional world for 20 years.

They’ve done their metrics and found there’s limited value in what they do, but it’s very much how elite colleges choose their students. Google people are suckers for metrics. Now you have to get special permission to go beyond eight interviews.

Every single hire at Google goes through Larry Page. Every week he gets a packet. One thing that helps if you GPA isn’t up there, if you’ve done something extra special, that is taken into account. Like winning an Oscar [people laugh]. For example, one guy had a low GPA but was an Italian foosball champion, so he got the job.

Chris: How are the international offices in comparison?

Steven: They want the offices to be Google-y. They set them up very similar to Google. They understand the cultures are different, so they try to accommodate. He doesn’t think it’s unusual that there is any tension between headquarters and engineering centers overseas, just like many companies.

Danny is talking about the Google-China issue. And Google’s sort-of responsibility in it all.

Steven: Google is in a tough situation because they have to stand up for the whole Web itself. Steven gives an example of an incident where you would type in the word “Jew” in Google, and an anti-Semitic site came up. This hurt Sergey because he fled his country for anti-Semitism. But still, Google didn’t take it down. But, they were able to tweak things to address it.

Chris is talking about Google, the search company and Google the enterprise software company. Do you see a risk compromising the laser focus on search with all the new things they are taking on?

Steven: It’s not just a search company, it’s an artificial intelligence company. That shows through in all the new products it creates.

Danny: It’s difficult because you become friends with people at Google, and then you have to write things about them. How do you still do the job you have to do?

Steven: Ultimately you have to write what’s important to your readers; I’m not there to learn things for myself, I’m there to pass it on to the readers. So, if I have to be critical, I do. Ultimately, that’s what writers do – they serve their readers [Amen to that]. The point of the book is not to examine the arguments against Google, but to give people a sense of what goes on inside Google.





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