Google dominates the search market, boasting a 66% share in the U.S. But as good as that figure sounds, some say it’s actually a burden. Call it the tyranny of having a billion users: You’re less likely to innovate when you’re on top. It was the reason Facebook partnered with “underdog” Bing for social search–CEO Mark Zuckerberg caught many off guard not only for teaming with Microsoft, but for his implicit knocks on Google.
“They [Microsoft] really are the underdog here,” he said at the announcement. “They’re incentivized to go out and innovate. When you’re an incumbent in an area … there is tension between innovating and trying new things versus what you already have.”
One source tells Fast Company that the Google search team is miffed and confused as to how Zuckerberg figured they weren’t innovating. The company has more people working on search than ever before, and its list of 100 projects, instituted by co-founder Larry Page, is still going strong. Last year, the team launched about 550 changes to its search engine, and in September, unveiled Instant, one of the largest overhauls to its engine ever.
Fast Company broached the subject recently with Google’s Amit Singhal, who oversees Google’s ranking and algorithm team. “The main reason why Google is where it is today is that we have been able to make huge changes to our search–and are able to do it while running this big search engine,” he says “We used to compare that to changing an engine on a jet while it’s flying. Over the years, we’ve not only mastered changing the engine while flying, but have been able to change the seats without the users noticing. That’s the beauty of how we innovate. You’ve suddenly given everyone first class seats, and they didn’t even wake up.”
Singhal has been with Google for a decade. He is the most senior engineer in search, ranking, and quality. In the early aughts, he was awarded the honorary title of Google Fellow after rewriting the all-important search algorithm.
From Singhal’s perspective, Google’s popularity has helped, not hindered. “Having that userbase, which many people will say can potentially slow you down, has actually become a positive feedback loop for us,” he explains. “We are innovating at a much faster pace than we were in the early days–at any given time, a reasonably large number of Google users are playing with one of the ideas in a designer’s or engineer’s head.”
Every year, he says, Google runs thousands of experiments. These experiments include just about everything you could imagine: changing the color of a link or button; improving Arabic semantics; building real-time search; or creating Google Instant, the results-as-you-type feature. As Singhal says, it’s simply a function of having more resources: His team is able to test hypotheses faster.
“We couldn’t do these things five years back even if we wanted to,” he explains. “We didn’t have enough engineers. But by having a bigger team today, we have new ideas, new people, and the capacity to execute on those ideas.”
Having that bigger team, Google has been criticized for growing too large–it has around 23,000 employees in some 70 offices across three dozen countries. From the outside, it seems like that kind of bloat represents an opportunity for more nimble competitors, such as the “scrappy underdog” Bing, which has grown its market share into the double-digits.
In the last year, Bing has become known for its scrolling image search, colorful backgrounds, and sidebar menu items–three features Google has borrowed. Isn’t Google working with Bing in its rearview mirror, realizing the threat to its market share?
Singhal, not surprisingly, demurs.
“I wouldn’t say that. Yahoo and Bing are good competition–they honestly keep me lean and stop me from getting fat. A competitive landscape is an innovative landscape. From day one, there were plenty of other search engines–that didn’t motivate us in any direction. We knew where we were going. The fact is, we need to innovate at breakneck speed to stay ahead in the game because otherwise we will, and should, end up losing.”
But what about social search? Facebook teamed with Microsoft, not Google. Does Google have any partnerships planned for social search?
“I’m glad you asked, because we launched social search about two years or so back,” says Singhal. A Google PR rep adds that the company already has an agreement with Facebook to crawl through its public and fan pages for real-time search, and that they have no new specific plans to announce. But that doesn’t mean Singhal can’t tease.
“I am so excited about what I am seeing inside–what our team is building,” he says. “After 10 years, I’m coming to work everyday like a kid going to the candy store.”