After spending years as a journalist for the San Jose Mercury News and Marketplace, in the late 1990s, Douglas Edwards became restless. In 1999, even though it seemed something like a Yahoo clone, Edwards joined a scrappy startup called Google, weathering the ridicule of his colleagues and protestations of his wife. Google’s 59th employee was woefully underprepared, and for the next five-and-a-half years he spent as Google’s director of consumer marketing and brand management, he felt a little like a civilian who had wandered onto a rocketship just before liftoff.
Edwards’s new book on his Google years, which hits bookstores today, is called I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59. Fast Company caught up with Edwards to talk about giving Google a human face, Sergey Brin’s anatomically correct cow costume, and how Google+ might succeed where orkut, Google’s first social network, failed. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our discussion.
FAST COMPANY: Reading your book, I was continually struck by the difficult situation you were put in–as the branding guy at an organization that almost had an institutional contempt for the idea of branding.
DOUGLAS EDWARDS: It certainly felt awkward to me on occasion, to know that the role I filled in the company was not one that people understood as essential to the success of the company.
You write about an encounter with Larry Page where you suggested other search engines would catch up with Google in quality, meaning Google would have to win over users with branding. But Page basically said if Google couldn’t win purely on quality, it didn’t deserve to win at all. How did you deal with that?
I came to understand that I could play a role in terms of developing the product, and that was a role of adding a more humanized face to it. I found that marketing was actually baked into the product in the way that the product spoke to users, and I found a lot of satisfaction in writing copy that went into interface elements of the product. And I think Larry ultimately came around to understanding that branding did have some role–maybe not as important as the engineering, but that there was a need for communication to users and the world at large.
User interface was one realm where the communications team and the engineering team met each other halfway. Can you give an example of how you humanized Google?
Here’s an example: the automated spellchecker. So Google had the capability of detecting if someone’s typed query was likely misspelled. The engineers said, ‘Great, if somebody misspells something, we should automatically correct it, do the correct search, and then tell them that they misspelled it, so they know we fixed it.’ The problem was, people don’t generally like to be told they made a mistake. The engineers insisted it was essential to tell the user they were wrong, so we launched with wording to that effect. But I knew from a marketing perspective that people would find that abrasive. And people were upset. They were pissed off that their search engine was correcting them–especially if they hadn’t made a mistake, if they were searching for a proper name that happened to be unique. Finally we changed it to softer phrasing. [Currently, Google says, “Showing results for…” and then the corrected query.] I remember arguing at the time, it doesn’t hurt us to take the blame–a search engine doesn’t have feelings. We should always be willing to take the hit, so the user feels better, even if they know they made a mistake.
How do you intend for people to read this book? As a sort of playbook for how to recreate Google’s success?
I did not write an instruction manual. I wrote this as observation of what happened at Google from 1999 to 2005. I do think there are some lessons in the book, though. How Larry reorganized the engineering department, for example. He didn’t like the fact that project managers were getting between him and engineers, so he called a meeting and told them very publicly that he didn’t need them–and those people felt humiliated. I think Larry took a lesson from that, and I think he became more adept over time at managing. A young startup entrepreneur might share some of the characteristics of Larry. “If there’s a problem, reboot, fix it, move on.” That can be effective but can also be destructive. It can tear down relationships. I don’t want to broadly generalize, but there are some people in the industry who just focus on solving problems in the most direct way possible and don’t always think about adding a layer of tact into a social interaction, because it’s not essential, in their view.
Maybe you can help answer an etiquette question I have. What are your feelings on the one-word “thanks” email? On the one hand I want to acknowledge and thank someone, but on the other hand, I don’t want to clutter their inbox.
One etiquette thing I learned, in the subject line, just write “Thanks EOM,” for end of message. It’s always better if you can fit an entire email into a subject line, rather than a six-paragraph email.
So if Sergey Brin reads your book and writes you a lengthy email praising your book, will you reply with “Thanks EOM” in the subject line?
That’s unlikely to happen. First of all, Sergey doesn’t write emails at length. Sergey’s emails are usually a sentence, and not always a complete sentence. Look at how he’s using Google+. He’s put up like one photograph–he’s not using it as a communications tool, but as a proof of concept. Don’t expect either one of them to begin logging, “Oh, here’s what I had for breakfast…” That’s just not their style.
While we’re on the topic, your book chronicles the failure of orkut, Google’s first social network. Do you think Google+ can succeed where orkut failed?
I think they learned a lot, based on what I’ve seen from the launch of Google+. They’re clearly identifying it as being in beta, they’re limiting the number of people who can sign up, and they’re making changes quickly. I get the sense that this is a major initiative—it’s not one engineer doing something on his own. Orkut failed because it couldn’t adapt quickly enough.
Your book explains why orkut was briefly wildly popular in Finland.
Orkut [the Google engineer who built orkut] is Turkish, so we had no idea when we launched it that in Finland evidently that same word means “multiple sexual climaxes.” When people saw a product called orkut, they thought it was a dating service or sex site, and it took off quickly. As soon as they saw what it actually was, interest cooled somewhat.
Your book is very funny. And part of your job was to be Google’s humor guy, doing the April Fool’s gags, for instance. What’s the relationship between the world of tech startups and comedy?
Sergey in particular just has got a very wild sense of humor. He himself would send out April Fool’s jokes. One was about how he was gonna be offering birthing classes for all the pregnant mothers on staff, teaching the three pillars of childbirth and so forth. One other time, he announced the stock price had jumped from 20 cents to $4.01–get it? April 1st?–but people were rushing around talking about taking loans to buy options before the price went up. He would come to Halloween parties in most outlandish costumes, and he conducted job interviews once dressed as a cow. It had a rubber udder, and he was stroking his udder while interviewing candidates.
You also mention that there was a white board anyone could add to, containing Google’s plans for world domination.
People would just write anything on there, and [outsiders] would come and say, “Is this for real?” There was everything from Colonize Mars, to Take Over This Industry–all sorts of things that would not have gone over well with the Justice Department. They were all meant in jest, but were just close enough to reality that people would be like, Are they really gonna do that? It had “DO NOT ERASE” written all over it, but one night someone erased it, and there was a great gnashing of teeth.
Other funny moments in your book come from people’s reactions to your decision to leave a perfectly stable newspaper job in favor of a search engine no one had heard of.
Going to a copy of Yahoo in 1999 did not seem cool at all. The publisher at the San Jose Mercury News made fun of me saying, “Oh, he’s going to a search engine. That won’t last long.” It wasn’t immediately apparent that Google was going to be so much better than other search engines.
You quote your wife as saying in your first year or two at Google, “You know, honey, maybe the Merc would take you back…?”
She’s not entirely thrilled with my portrayal of her in the book. But she had pretty strong reservations. The Merc did try to counteroffer, with a raise and a promotion, and she was managing our three children at the time…
Well, seems like it all worked out.
Yeah. It worked out okay. I don’t think she’s too terribly upset now.
Why did you write the book? Your stock options mentioned in the book, plus the fact that you’re donating all profits to food banks, make me gather it’s not for monetary gain.
Well, I was an English major in college. I like to write. And Google is omnipresent. Every time I see the logo, I flash back to my time at Google, and it’s like, Oh, there’s a story about that. I had all these stories banging around head, that had to get out. It’s almost like therapy, purging this experience from my brain. At Google, there was so much going on in every given day, I could probably write a book about any single day at Google. It took me two years just to decompress. It’d be sitting at my email, clicking refresh, clicking refresh again, I was so used to getting thousands of emails in a day.
For years after Google you’d wake up in a cold sweat panicking that you’d forgotten to respond to an email. It sounds like you had something like post-Google stress disorder.
Absolutely. Certainly don’t want to equate my experience with anything as horrific as warfare, but there was a lot of pressure. I was performing at level I had never done before, getting more done more quickly and more efficiently than ever. It took me a while to gear down. And it wasn’t always a pleasant experience. I wasn’t sure where I was gonna go next, what to do next. It was not an easy transition. I’m not gonna whine about fact that I got to the point where didn’t have to work anymore. I’m not looking for pity. But the transition was much more difficult than I would have anticipated. The Monday morning after my last Friday at Google I just woke up saying, “Okay, what do I do?”
Maybe you could be a Google analyst for CNBC or something?
In fact, I’ve had offers to do ongoing commentary on Google. It’s not my goal in life to become a Google pundit.
So what is ahead for you, after promoting the book?
I’m going to continue my involvement with an issue that concerns me, political transparency, by working with maplight.org, a non-profit in Berkeley that looks at all the data about campaign contributions and does analyses of how representatives vote on issues relative to the people who gave them money. It’s hard to see how real change is gonna come when money is still the largest voice in politics.
So you’ve named your book I’m Feeling Lucky, after the iconic little button on Google’s famously minimalist homepage. I had never clicked the button before–my understanding is it launches you right to the first search hit–but I decided to try it out today. But when I started typing, Google Instant delivered a search results page right away, making the button useless. Have you named your book after a button that’s becoming obsolete, that has its days numbered?
There was a story I saw, about how the Norwegian interface, I think, for Google doesn’t include that button any longer. And there are questions about what it costs Google, since if people click that, they see no ads, and there’s no revenue generated. Plus there are the physical cost of actually serving extra pixels of text. There are all these reasons not to do it. But part of the reason I liked calling the book “I’m Feeling Lucky” is that that button to me represented the human face of Google. There’s no real reason for it to be there other than that it gives users a warm feeling towards Google. Most users are like you, they have no idea what it does, they’ve never once clicked it, they barely notice it–but at some level, it says “I’m Feeling Lucky” on the homepage, and that’s a very human statement. Sergey put it there as a way to show how confident he was that Google would deliver what you wanted. But over time it came to have different meaning to me. Here’s something that’s purely a brand element–there’s no metric that justifies the existence of that button. The fact that they may be getting rid of it doesn’t surprise me, but it does sadden me a little.