Chris Alexander

On Engineering

Why Marissa Mayers new job could be the most important role in the survival of Google

14th December, 2010

Did I just say the survival of Google, the world’s biggest search engine, the number 1 website on the internet, and a company with $23 billion revenues for 2009 (and already at nearly $21 billion through the third quarter of 2010)? (Source)

I’m not as crazy as you undoubtedly would like to think. Google’s pretty much sole source of income is display advertising online. Sure they sell Google Apps to big businesses and make a bit through App Engine and other bits and pieces like that, but a huge proportion comes from showing people adverts on websites at their desktops and phones. There are now other big players in the search business that are teaming up to try and take down Google. And despite innovation coming at a ridiculous pace at Google, is it still really viable to think that they can carry on just as they are and continue to make money? Of course not - times change. So what does Marissa’s new job have to do with any of it?

Marissa was one of the first 20 Google employees, and until recently was in charge of Search and User Experience. Given the previous paragraph, it follows that this was a pretty substantial role. In fact, the last major project she rolled out in that position was Google Instant, a somewhat revolutionary take on finding in formation quickly.

The new job is entitled “Consumer Products”, but this is just a label for what Marissa will actually be doing. Recently Google have been making plays into the mobile, location, and ratings spaces - Hotpot (#4291), the new Google Maps for Android (#4335), and previously Latitude. It is this kind of product that Marissa will actually be overseeing - making sure Google is up to improving its local and geographical products.

So why is this so important? Well a couple of major reasons. First of all, it is the monumental shift to mobile seen over the past few years. On top of the previously huge uptake in the far east, the west is now seeing enormous growth in mobile internet usage where it is moving from a VIP feature to a daily commodity for millions of users. With the rise of smart devices such as iPhone, Android, and Blackberry in business and casual use, mobile searches are going through the roof.

But why has Marissa actually gone for this job? Well she’s used to high-profile products for one; and she is a very smart cookie when it comes to algorithms and problem solving. In her fireside chat with Mike Arrington at LeWeb, she mentioned something called “contextual discovery”. This is essentially the idea that you can search without actually searching. Based on a range of input data such as your current and previous location, your activities, schedules, and previous experience, this mechanism will attempt to provide users with the information that they need without them specifically having to ask for it. The example given on stage was a little fuzzy, but a cool interpretation of this could be that you have just arrived at Gare du Nord in Paris: it would know you have never been in France before so it provides you with a link to the Translate application; it checks your calendar and finds the venue for an event the same day is Les Docks, so provides a route for you via public transport; and it tells you where to find Metro tickets or a taxi.

The sheer technical challenge involved in getting something like that right is extremely daunting. While it may seem simple on the surface, inferring outcomes from so many varied sources and providing ultimately useful and relevant data will be a tough challenge - Mayer’s two degrees both with specialisations in AI will undoubtedly come in handy, and if anybody has the infrastructure to compute such a thing, Google does.

To round up, it will be interesting to see where Marissa and Google go with this new leadership and problem space. If they can crack getting localised data right - and nail scenarios outlined above - they could be onto the next big thing both in terms of usefulness for the public and Google revenues.

I have embedded the entire fireside chat with Marissa Mayer from LeWeb 10 below.