Walking the Censorship Tightrope with Google's Marissa Mayer

Google sometimes finds itself at a difficult crossroad of wanting to make as much information available to as many people as possible, while still trying to obey the laws of the countries they operate in. I recently had a chance to talk to Marissa Mayer, who started at Google as their first female engineer, and has now risen to the ranks of vice president in charge of some of Google’s most critical product areas, such as search, maps, and Chrome. We talked about some of Google’s future product directions, and also about how Google makes the decision as to when information has to be withheld from the users. Marissa will be delivering a keynote address at the O’Reilly Velocity conference next week.

James Turner: As VP of Search Products and User Experience, you’re responsible for a vast swath of the Google product line, from search to maps to Google Labs. You were also the first female engineer at Google. Can you talk a little about how you came to Google and what brought you to where you are today?

Marissa Mayer: Sure. My background is when I was at Stanford, I was doing a symbolic systems degree in artificial intelligence. And I was always somewhat interested in search. I ended up getting an email [from Google] towards the very end of my job interview process. I came to Google and did the interviews. And I came here because I really wanted to put my AI background to use. For about the first year or so, I did. I did a lot of work on categorization, some work on search quality. And then interestingly, we sort of had a void around how the site looked and felt and how it worked. And we tried very hard to hire someone in UI. We thought we needed someone to do UI like one day a week, and do systems engineering the rest of the time. After a few months of failing to hire such a person, Urs H√∂lzle, our VP of Engineering, pulled me in and said, “Marissa, we’ve looked through all of the resumes and you have this background in your undergrad on cognitive psychology and philosophy and things. And would you mind dedicating one day a week to UI?” So I did.

marissa_mayer_lg.jpgI pulled together a volunteer team to help out one day a week while we all still worked on our various AI and systems work. And then, of course, one day became two days which became three days or four days or five days. And I was also programming at that point. I switched over from a lot of the AI work I was doing to programming the front end for Google, working on the Google web server because it was nice for me to be able to not only make decisions about the UI but also to implement them.

And then because I was implementing the changes to the front end, I would go and meet with Larry and Sergey. And they would say, “What’s happening on the site this week?” And I would say, “Well, I coded a change that looked like this. And I coded a change that looked like that. And translated this page and it’ll go here. And there’ll be a pull-down over there for the number of results.” And without even realizing it, I did project management before Google had project management, by specifying how things were and looked and communicating to the rest of the company about how these changes would manifest. And then when we got to about 200 or 300 people, Larry and Sergey discovered that most companies have this function, product management, which I didn’t know about; they didn’t know about prior [to this]. And we decided we should have such a department. They realized there were a few of us around the company that were doing product management even though that wasn’t our title. So they started the product management group and got it started earlier. And so I became a PM.

First, I was the PM on Google.com, really broadly across the whole site, because there were only three of us. One of us did the site, which was me. Salar Kamangar did the ads. And Susan [Wojcicki] did the partners. And then as our teams grew, I became the director of consumer web properties, where I still did all of the consumer facing work of the website including branching into Gmail and tool bars and some of these other areas. And then as we progressed, eventually, we restructured so we had search, ads, and apps, because Gmail and the related space of calendar and docs became large enough that it made sense to spin it out. So then I kept the search piece and the properties we have that are more related to search.

James Turner: There’s always been other companies trying to take a piece of Google’s dominant position in search; how does Google plan to stay a step ahead in search, especially in light of new players like Wolfram and Microsoft’s new emphasis on Bing?

Marissa Mayer: Well, we are very focused on search. We have a large team here that’s really focused on it and working hard on it. And we’re constantly trying to forge in new directions. So we were really excited about the launch of our search options page because we think that allows us to try a lot of new ways to slice and dice and filter results. We were also really excited about Google Squared, which attempts to do automated text extraction from the web and present comparison tables for different entities in response to queries. They’re both new ways to search. How do you generate a timeline from a web search? How do you generate a comparison table? And some of our competitors are also looking at those same issues. So I think on the whole, right now, our search is a very healthy ecosystem. There’s a lot of interest. There’s a lot of activity, and there’s a lot of new ground being forged.

James Turner: Google users want the most useful results, but content providers want to get their pages seen, sometimes it seems at any cost. How will Google continue to provide the most useful results in the world of increasingly sophisticated SEO gaming?

Marissa Mayer: Well, we generally — we really want to be fair in these issues as well as be good to users. We do think that spam is very detrimental to the user experience. We do have an incentive to find spam and remove it from our results. But we want to do something in a way that’s very scalable. The web is scaling at an incredible rate. And we don’t think it’s really viable to try and fight spam in a manual way. So we’re always looking for new algorithmic ways to understand new spam techniques, to be able to detect them in an automated way and remove them from our results. And the nice side benefit that scalability has is it’s also reasonably objective and fair.

James Turner: I know you’re not directly responsible for Chrome, but I was wondering if you could comment at all about what Google hopes to achieve with Chrome and how you think it will affect Google’s relationship with Mozilla?

Marissa Mayer: Chrome is in my group. So Sundar Pichai, who manages Chrome, works for me. So while I’m not directly responsible, I do have some purview and insight into it. And we were really excited about Chrome. We think that, overall, if you make the web better, people use the web more. And that ultimately benefits Google because we believe that search is a certain and rather fixed percentage of people’s online activities each day. It’s hovered right around 5 percent from the very beginning of the internet. So about 1 in 20 things you do on the internet involves finding something. And so if that’s true, one way we can grow search is by gaining market share from other competitors. The other way we can gain share is by just growing the market overall, where we don’t necessarily gain share but we gain on overall volume. So we have a number of things that we do that try and make the web more pleasant and easy to use. For example, Google Packs was of this variety. Google Toolbar is also of this variety where it helps you even on non-search pages. We just think it’s a better way to use the web. And the same thing is true for the browser.

And we also like to enter areas where we think there’s a lack of innovation, or focus on things that really matter. So as we looked at the browser market, people have gotten really good at rendering HTML. But there hasn’t been a lot of innovation. And there’s been almost no attention on JavaScript at all. And so we thought we could build a browser that is just a lot faster for the web and it’s much more optimized for JavaScript. It’s becoming more and more a prevalent part of the web. And it can be a real breakthrough in terms of speed. And it could also be a breakthrough in terms of how minimalistic the interface is. And so those were the types of things we really chose to push on with Chrome. And we also knew that tab browsing was becoming more and more popular; yet, we couldn’t understand why people weren’t using the computer architecture of having several parallel threads, right? Each tab being its own process in order to protect the overall sanctity of your browser in your desktop. So I think there were some very keen observations for the technical trends in Chrome. And certainly one UI trend is the minimalism. But in terms of how JavaScript was being handled in the browser and what the potential for change was there as well as the observation around segregated processes, those were two very deep computer science observations that led to a really innovative product. So we’re very proud of Chrome. I think it’s a beautiful product. It’s one of the more polished ones we’ve ever released. And I think that it is really good for the web. And I do think that to some extent, our observation has been validated. Yesterday, I was at the Apple WWDC keynote. And interestingly, in their release of Safari 4, they went through all of the benchmarks with regard to JavaScript, which I would argue a year ago, before we launched Chrome, no one would’ve done. People just weren’t thinking about whether or not JavaScript was fast.

James Turner: And your relationship with Mozilla?

Marissa Mayer: We’ve been a really good partner with Mozilla over time. We think that Firefox is a great product. We ultimately really think that more choice in the browser market is better. And certainly we think that more choice in the browser market is better for the web because it causes web masters and site owners to build for multiple platforms which generally causes better adherence to standards.

James Turner: One of the areas you’re responsible for is Google News. Unlike some aggregators, Google News is pretty automated. With the world of journalism in major upheaval, especially as blogs and citizen journalism play a larger role in news reporting, how do you make sure that Google News presents a balanced and accurate snapshot of the current news landscape?

Marissa Mayer: We’ve just recently done a major update to Google News. If you look at it, the design of the page looks quite different. And, actually, when you click through to the different section pages like business and entertainment, we now bring in videos. We bring in blogs. We try and bring in some supplemental information that’s really helpful because we do think that the web has become much more rich and complex in the area of news. And we wanted the product really to reflect that. And there, you know, we have very sophisticated algorithms and people thinking about how to take what we have coming in from our news crawl and really make it effective for our new users in a way that really reflects what’s happening in the world. So they’re constantly refining the algorithm and trying to understand: is there a new signal that they can take from a page or from a video to really understand how it relates to the overall context of the news of the day.

James Turner: There’s been a lot of heated debate about Google’s book projects, both in terms of authors wanting to protect their intellectual property and people who want to make sure the public domain works are freely and equally available; where do things stand right now with Google and books and how do you react to concerns that Google could end up with a stranglehold on the written word?

Marissa Mayer: Well, we really believe in an open platform for reading and accessing books. And that’s what Google Book Search is about. And we’ve worked very hard with our partners to make their books accessible in new ways: available through purchase, available from our library partners in terms of having them on the web. And so our goal here is to build a really healthy ecosystem around books in both their physical and in their digital formats. With that said, given the amount of information in the world on the web and in books, we really do think having the books online, at least scanning them and being able to search them is critically important to providing people access to quality information.

James Turner: Another area of controversy is the recent concerns about information that some claim is sensitive such as the layout of nuclear power plants ending up in Google Maps and Google Earth. How seriously do you take those concerns? And isn’t there the risk that if every government can choose what information Google Maps displays, you could end up with a pretty patchwork globe?

Marissa Mayer: Generally, our imaging comes from third party suppliers. And it is true that they do blur some images. That said, we try to publish the best quality data that we have available. And so we try to understand what information should be occluded and what shouldn’t be, and we only occlude where necessary. That said, we do understand that for matters of national security and in different countries’ perspectives, there are some elements that do for safety and security’s sake need to be occluded. So we try and minimize that. And we also try to make it apparent on the map when that has occurred.

James Turner: Just to follow up on that a little bit, obviously there’s probably things you can’t talk about, but I can imagine that a government that had refugee camps might want them blurred for political reasons. Can you talk a little bit about how the decision-making process works?

Marissa Mayer: Well, we do have some guidelines. For example, requests from the governments around take downs that have justification of safety or security, we generally will comply with, although they do get assessed. There are other instances though, for example, like battered women’s shelters in Street View. A lot of times it’s for the women’s safety that their locations aren’t known. And so we do think it’s important to not have those on the map and/or have Street View images of, for example, who’s walking in or out of them. It is important. So there is an element of judgment there. We try and be as fair as possible and be very forthright with our process. So if people inquire, we will tell them what our process has been around that. But, again, our overall goal is to do that as infrequently as possible.

James Turner: All right. One final controversial issue before we move on to happier things. Just last week, the news broke that Microsoft Bing was censoring out anything with the word sex from their Indian users. We’ve also heard of similar censorship of information going into China. It could be argued that a Google search is, in some sense, a snapshot of reality as seen on the web. Can you present different versions of reality to different people while remaining true to Google’s motto not to be evil?

Marissa Mayer: Well, we have a very firm view on wanting to keep as much information in our search results as possible. So where we have to remove results, we note on the bottom of the page that we’ve removed results. And we only remove results in the event that there’s a particular page that has been deemed illegal due to its content in a particular area. So like if you were to say child pornography or various hate content. But even in those cases, when we remove something, we note on the bottom that it’s been removed and put in a link in with the complaint. And there’s also instances where in order to provide a good user experience, we really feel that we need to do this. So, for example, China’s a very interesting case where the websites that would be removed from the result page aren’t accessible from inside of China anyway. So if we put them on the results page, users can’t click through and read them anyway. And so we do note when they’ve been removed so people can see that. We ultimately think we’re really hoping to achieve the best possible user experience because it’s not a great user experience to get ten results, none of which you can actually click on. And if you do click on any of them, it shuts down your internet connection.

So we think it’s not a great outcome. And we also felt that it was more important to engage with China and get the benefit of Google to Chinese users, especially given the choice of our policies that are in China, we think is a better user experience in terms of search.

James Turner: In your opinion, do you think something like taking all pages that have mentioned sex at all out of searches is a little broad?

Marissa Mayer: I think it’s really broad, and I just think it’s unacceptable. And Google has never done anything like that. As I said, we try and make any removals as pointed and as justified as possible. So we often in cases, like I said, where there’ll be a legal complaint filed for like DMCA reasons or legal reasons around hate content. And only in those instances will we remove that very specific piece of content. And then we even link to the complaint because we really do think that any amount of censorship needs to be very heavily scrutinized and justified. So I do think broad exclusions like that are not acceptable.

James Turner: What excites you right now most about Google’s current product direction and research? Is there anything really cool that you can let us know about if it’s in the pipe?

Marissa Mayer: Sure. Well, I’m really excited about some of these new ways of searching. So I think that the tool belt and Google Squared are really great products. And I think they show how young the search space is, that there’s these whole new paradigms being invented each day. I also am very excited about Google Wave. I saw the demo for the first time about 18 months ago. So I’m excited that it’s now public, and we can talk more about it. But I think that what they’re doing is very profound. And I tend to get most excited about things where there’s a really interesting computer science observation, like we talked about in Chrome as sort of the underpinnings. Or, for example, in Wave, really asking the question of what happens if email is server side and what if you deliver all data in a very uniform way as XML, what are some of the interesting blendings and integrations you can get from having that very pure data model? And so I really like innovations that come from that very technical place but then manifest themselves in a really delightful user experience.

James Turner: Is Google Apps for Domains ever going to seamlessly integrate in terms of single sign-on with the rest of Google?

Marissa Mayer: We are working on that. In fact, they are building ways for people to sign on on other sites, and then Google apps using their Google account. So we are working on federating our log in. And yes, I think the answer is yes. It may take longer, and I’m not sure that the federation will come in the exact form that you want it, in terms of seamlessness. But we do see this as a priority. And we are working on it.

James Turner: All right. Well, thank you very much for taking the time. You were very frank with us.

Marissa Mayer: Thank you very much.

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