Before a few dozen journalists from around the world gathered for Google Press Day 2006, company executives offered a broad overview of the search giant's future direction, reiterated its focus on search, and spoke of plans to open up. Ironically, the wireless network that Google had set up for guests was down at the time.
"The Google story is getting more complicated and more complex every day," said Elliot Schrage, Google's VP of global communications. "There are many, many untold Google stories."
Though Shrage didn't elaborate, it's clear Google is in the middle of a great number of stories: from federal subpoenas for search queries to cooperation with Chinese authorities to other controversial issues that Google, by virtue of its size and success, can no longer avoid.
The lyrical refrain of the pre-event techno music asked bluntly, "Are you ready for love?" Google clearly is.
"We're committed to a much more transparent way of working with you all," CEO Eric Schmidt said.
For Google, transparency is important not just to appease the press, but, as Schrage put it, "to avoid confusing the marketplace." Google's success depends increasingly on business partners working to extend the Google search platform into high-value markets, and it has to keep its partners informed.
Schmidt emphasized, however, that search remains Google's primary focus. "Search is still central," he said, adding later, "We have a heavy, heavy investment in new search algorithms."
To prove that point, Jonathan Rosenberg, SVP of product management, and Marissa Mayer, VP of search products and user experience, revealed four new software products to enhance the search experience: Google Co-Op, Google Desktop 4, Google Trends, and Google Notebook.
Google Co-Op exemplifies the new openness Google is striving for: It lets users improve search results by syndicating their knowledge. Individuals or organizations can now label or categorize Web pages and make those labels available as a subscription. For subscribers, these labels and associated links get added to search queries when relevant.
For example, a doctor could contribute labels in his or her area of expertise to establish a group of pages that are particularly noteworthy. Patients could then subscribe to those labels and see links added to relevant queries that offer a categorized subset of results. Google's answer to vertical, or category-specific, search engines is the wisdom of its users.
It's particularly noteworthy because collective intelligence is the basis for Google's most successful technology, the PageRank algorithm that counts Web links as votes for Web page authority. This is a departure from the automated systems Google tends to prefer as a means of operating at scale.
The major innovation in Google Desktop 4 is Google Gadgets, small applications that can live on users' desktops or inside the Google Desktop environment. They're Google's answer to Apple's Dashboard widgets.
For Apple and Microsoft, this has to be a troubling development: More and more of the programs they sell in their operating systems are being offered free by Google. Moreover, these programs are open and have APIs that developers can build on. And just as Amazon creates book recommendations based on user purchase history, Google plans to leverage its knowledge of its users to pitch programs that dovetail with their interests.
Google's commitment to openness is also on display with Google Trends, which lets users access data about the popularity of search terms over time and then filter that data by city, region, or language.
"We're giving you the keys to Zeitgeist," Mayer said, referring to the list of top search terms known as Google Zeitgeist that Google publishes.
Such access is sure to be welcome by anyone doing Internet-related research and by marketers in particular.
Finally, Google Notebook, which should be available next week, is a scratchpad application that lets users store and share URLs and other data copied from Web pages. Google describes it as "a simple way for users to save and organize their thoughts when conducting research online." It's really more of a reimagining of how browser bookmarks should work.
Google is also reinventing its internal processes to better manage its explosive growth. "The goal this year is to systemize everything at Google," Schmidt said. "That's the only way that we're going to deal with the scale we're seeing."
Though he didn't go into detail, Schmidt suggested that the company's internal management processes needed to be streamlined to integrate new employees into the company more efficiently and to arrive at decisions about new products in a more timely manner.
Questions from the journalists in attendance returned frequently to the subject of Google's competitors, particularly Microsoft. Schmidt and other executives downplayed the dustup, insisting that Google was focused on innovation and the user experience, not what competitors were doing. "There's room for more than one winner," Schmidt said. "You're missing the broader play."
Never mind that Alan Eustace, SVP of engineering, observed that Google's index of Web pages was three times larger than that of the competition. Or that Mayer asserted, "Our lead over the competition is as large as it has been over the past two years."
Asked about Google's concerns about its place in the upcoming Microsoft Vista operating system, co-founder Sergey Brin said Google is paying attention to areas where Microsoft might abuse its power because "We just see the history of that company behaving anti-competitively."
But Google remains focused on the future. "We don't see today any limit to this model continuing to grow," Schmidt said. "I'm sure there are limits, but we don't see them today."