What’s Next For Google+ Now That Its Leader Has Suddenly Left?

From my Forbes blog:

Google+ has never gotten the respect its creator hoped, let alone gained much ground on its supposed target, Facebook. Now, Google’s attempt at a social network has lost its leader and chief evangelist, Vic Gundotra, who announced today that he’s leaving Google after almost eight years at the company.

Gundotra, a former Microsoft executive, gave no clue to his next steps. His own post, musing on the death of his wife’s uncle and her father’s attitude toward life, implied that he was simply ready for a new challenge after a career at Google that you’d have to consider a success. Google+ failed to make a dent in Facebook, but it’s a solid service with a loyal following and, probably most of all, a powerful source of data for Google’s advertising machine. And Gundotra’s previous work courting developers for Android obviously paid off bigtime, as the mobile software remains the only credible rival to Apple’s iOS.

Still, Gundotra’s departure, effective immediately, is rather abrupt, despite recent rumors that he was interviewing for other jobs. There is speculation that he didn’t get along with CEO Larry Page’s “L Team” of top execs and with some employees who called him the “Victator,” though Page himself provided a quick bit of praise for Gundotra today. Other sources at Google have told me that Gundotra, known for his very public profile and more charm than many Google executives, was resented by some inside Google for self-promotion and a tendency to run over other execs in his drive to get things done.

What matters more going forward is what will happen to Google+, which has suffered most of all from a confusing vision of its core purpose. Gundotra and his lieutenant, Bradley Horowitz (who mysteriously was not chosen as his successor), have taken pains to define Google+ as not a social network, but some sort of social glue for all of Google’s services. But their insistence, coupled with iffy numbers of people supposedly using it, always rang a bit hollow, so Google+ continues to be compared to Facebook. And as a place to share your life with friends as people do on Facebook, it’s clearly a failure. …

Here’s the thing: This could actually be an ideal time for Google to forge a completely new vision of social networking and communications, rather than keep trying to explain what Google+ isn’t. Indeed, at a time when even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is talking up the virtues of private communications, Google+ could position itself as already well on the way to this new world of more nuanced online communications. …

Gundotra’s departure may be a blow to Google’s social ambitions for now. But it also could be an opportunity to start anew. And it’s an opportunity Google can’t afford to waste this time.

Read the rest of the analysis.

Google’s Next Big Battle: A Conversation With Ad Chief Susan Wojcicki

From my Forbes blog:

Straightforward and unflashy, Susan Wojcicki doesn’t come off like the most powerful woman in advertising that Forbes and others have labeled her. When we meet outside her office at the Googleplex in Mountain View, she’s dressed in jeans and a simple maroon top and speaks with an almost self-deprecating lilt.

But as the search giant’s senior vice president of advertising and commerce, she is indeed the exec leading the development of some of the most disruptive ad technologies of the past half-century. I interviewed Wojcicki (pronounced wo-JIT-ski) for my article in the current issue of Forbes on how Google is gunning for brand advertising, the image advertising still dominated by television and the dwindling pages of slick magazines.

After picking up “detox” lemonades at a juice bar, we walked past a T. Rex skeleton sculpture festooned with plastic pink flamingos to a set of tables to talk about how the company aims to wrest away brand advertising budgets, which still constitute the majority of ad spending worldwide thanks to the persistent popularity of television among advertisers. Over the slap of spikes and serves from a nearby volleyball court and the occasional caw of a crow resting in the nearby trees, she explained her vision of Google’s next big step beyond search and plain-vanilla display ads. This is an edited version of our conversation.

Google senior VP Susan Wojcicki

Google senior VP Susan Wojcicki

Q: Lots of brand marketers and agencies say they can get truly large audiences more easily on TV than on YouTube or elsewhere online. Why haven’t online ads been able to provide similar branding opportunities as TV and other traditional media?

A: Most advertising is a portfolio of different types of advertising. TV definitely is effective for lots of advertisers. If we want to talk about the long-term future, the question is: Where is TV going? Will all TVs be Internet-enabled? And if they are Internet-enabled, what does your TV look like then? Is your TV then basically a screen attached to your computer in your living room? There could be all different types of things your TV looks like in the future.

Q: You still hear the argument that TV is a lean-back medium and people in that kind of environment are always going to be more receptive to brand messaging. Are people ever going to be as receptive online?

A: Even in TV advertising, they try to target specific types of users. That’s why they’ll say, “We want users who watch sports,” because that means a certain type of demographic. Users are opting into seeing specific shows on TV, and I think it’s similar with digital. They are choosing specific shows to see.

I’m not really sure that lean-back vs. interactive necessarily means that the user is more or less receptive. It’s counterintuitive that something where you’re engaging, you’re less receptive. If users are engaging with something, they’re choosing to see something. That’s the whole concept of what we’re doing with TrueView [YouTube ads that viewers can skip and that advertisers pay for only if they’re viewed], where users are choosing to see something, so they’re engaging with it. …

Read the rest of the interview.

Display Ads As Compelling As TV Spots: A Conversation With Google VP Neal Mohan

From my Forbes blog:

In the lobby of Google’s Building 900 at its Mountain View headquarters, there’s a display of Google-colored squares and rectangles that looks like a bland abstract-art piece. It turns out these are the shape and relative size of standard display-ad units that run on nearly every commercial website.

The “display” display exposes the paradox of Google’s attempt to extend its dominion over online ads to the realm of image advertising done chiefly on television and in glossy magazines. To get the wide reach of television, the company needs to shoehorn image ads into those standardized, easy-to-buy units, but it also needs to provide technology that allows marketers to do more compelling pitches inside those boxes. Resolving that paradox is the job of Neal Mohan, Google’s vice president of display ads.

After joining the company with the $3.2 billion acquisition of display technology firm DoubleClick in 2007, Mohan has helped build or buy what’s likely the industry’s broadest set of technologies needed to create, place, and measure the impact of display ads. In an extensive interview for a story in the current issue of Forbes, we talked about how he and hundreds of engineers in Mountain View and New York City are trying to apply that technology to wrest billions of brand advertising dollars from TV. This is an edited version of our conversation.

Google VP Neal Mohan

Google VP Neal Mohan

Q: Could you lay out the key challenges today in getting more brand advertising to move online?

A: The primary use case for advertisers online is generally performance-oriented. That applies not just to search advertising but frankly to display, and even video ads have been performance-oriented. That’s done the industry well. There’s been a lot of growth around impressions and clicks and conversions.

But the next big opportunity for the industry if we are going to grow it not just X percent a year but 10X over the next few years is to crack this brand advertising nut. It’s not about display banners or text ads or rich media or video or mobile. It’s really about all of the above, and what the objectives of the brand advertiser are. It’s more upper-funnel campaigns where brands are looking to establish their brand or a new product that they’re looking to bring to market.

Q: Why the focus on brand advertising now?

A: There are a couple of things coming together that make this the right time for this opportunity to be addressed. The first is just the fundamental consumer trend. Fifty-seven percent of media consumption is online now, greater than any other channel combined, including television. …

Read the complete interview.

Look Out, Television: Google Goes For The Biggest Advertising Prize Of All

Google's BrandLab at YouTube headquarters

Google’s BrandLab at YouTube headquarters

From my Forbes magazine feature story:

IT’S MID-SEPTEMBER, and Volkswagen of America has a problem: It won’t have any new models coming out until the spring. Keeping VW front and center in consumers’ minds has drawn a group of marketing folks from the automaker and two of its ad agencies to Google’s BrandLab at its YouTube headquarters south of San Francisco. Dedicated to “evangelizing the art and science of brand-building,” the richly appointed meeting space is basically a man cave for ad creatives, complete with overstuffed couches, booze and the mother of all big screens, an assemblage of 32 flat-panel displays massed into 300 square feet of video overload.

In one corner of the BrandLab, Google’s Jeff Rozic goes to work running VW’s folks through a rapid-fire succession of video ad campaigns the BrandLab feels have worked. His earnest delivery is well-honed, courtesy of 100-plus similar “private workshops” held for potential advertisers from Coca-Cola to Toyota over the past year. VW has some catching up to do, a point Rozic makes intentionally or not by highlighting 13 travel vignettes produced by a rival, Nissan Mexico. His larger point: Don’t clutter a story with too blatant a call to action. “We shouldn’t apologize for trying to sell cars,” one VW exec protests. “Sure,” Rozic shoots back, “but you have to be careful to distinguish when you’re telling a story and when you’re selling.”

Fair point. Rozic is clearly selling–and it’s a product intended to change Google’s path. The king of the click is now lecturing one of the world’s most accomplished advertisers to forget those clicks and amp up the image ads. CEO Larry Page can go on as much as he wants about self-driving cars, wearable computers or any of the company’s other “moon shots.” But Google fundamentally remains the most disruptive advertising company of the past half-century. As its total advertising-revenue growth rate has halved in the past two years, from 29% to 15% (thanks in part to Facebook and Twitter), it’s now charging full-bore toward the biggest pot of advertising gold it doesn’t own: brand advertising, the image ads you see in glossy magazines and on television.

Most online ads–the banners that litter nearly every commercial website and, most notably, Google’s search ads–have failed to help marketers move the needle on classic advertising measures like brand awareness and intent to purchase. Instead, they mainly drive people to a product page to click the buy button. Direct marketing is lucrative: Search is still upwards of 60% of Google’s ad revenue, helping it earn an estimated 15.8% net margin in 2013–but image ads will come to dominate digital advertising in this decade.

Look at the numbers: Digital brand advertising is an $18 billion market this year, according to eMarketer. Its forecast implies that number will double by 2018, at which point it will have passed search and direct marketing, with plenty of room to grow. Television advertising, comprising almost entirely image ads, is currently a $200 billion global market. And it’s a vulnerable one, as the medium’s iron grip on the bulk of ad spending looks a little less firm as younger people scatter to YouTube and Netflix when they aren’t Snapchatting or Instagramming on iPhones or skipping ads entirely on their DVRs. Some 75% of respondents to an Interactive Advertising Bureau poll of 5,000 ad execs expect to see some spending move from TV to digital video in the next year.

This explains the man cave. YouTube remains one of the greatest acquisitions of the Internet era. Larry and Sergey paid $1.65 billion in 2006 for a business that today would conservatively be worth $20 billion as a stand-alone. So what’s another $400 million or so to build out a brand ad business? …

Read the rest of the story.

What The Heck Will Google Do With These Scary Military Robots?

From my Forbes blog:

Let’s see, we have a company that already knows everything about us, has possibly the world’s largest computer network, has recently built one of the biggest artificial-intelligence teams in the world–a company so powerful that it feels the need to soften its dominance with the informal motto, “Don’t be evil.”

And now Google–yes, of course we’re talking about Google–has bought a military robot company call Boston Dynamics. Not just any robot maker this time–after all, it has already quietly bought seven others over the past year, apparently to provide former Android chief Andy Rubin another chance at a moonshot project. No, unlike the other robot makers, this company makes machines by the names of BigDog, Atlas, and Cheetah that can variously outrun Usain Bolt and hurl cinderblocks 17 feet.

So, we’ve got the potential for killer robots that know where you live and can outrun you when they find you. What’s not to like?

All jokes about Skynet, Terminators, and Robocops aside, the latest acquisition raises a serious question about what Google has in mind. It looks for all the world like it’s pursuing yet another seemingly crazy side project that has nothing to do with its mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. It’s now trying out self-driving cars, home package delivery, wearable computers, and anti-aging technologies.

Clearly it’s time for Google to update its mission statement, not to mention the “Ten things we know to be true,” a list that includes such outdated gems as “It’s best to do one thing really, really well.” …

Read the rest of the post.

Meet Hummingbird: Google Just Revamped Search To Answer Your Long Questions Better

google15bday1

From my Forbes blog:

Google has updated its core algorithm that controls the answers we get to queries on its search engine in a bid to make them work better for longer, more complex questions.

The update, code-named Hummingbird, is the biggest change to the underpinnings of the world’s leading search engine since early 2010, when Google upgraded its algorithm to one it called Caffeine. Google made the change about a month ago, it announced at a press event in the garage of the Menlo Park (Calif.) house where Google started. The event also celebrated the 15th anniversary of Google’s founding, which is tomorrow.

Most people won’t notice an overt difference to search results. But with more people making more complex queries, especially as they can increasingly speak their searches into their smartphones, there’s a need for new mathematical formulas to handle them.

This update to the algorithm focuses more on ranking sites for better relevance by tapping further into the company’s Knowledge Graph, its encyclopedia of 570 million concepts and relationships among them, according to Amit Singhal, Google’s senior VP of search. (For example, there’s a Knowledge Graph “card,” or information box, for the Eiffel Tower, and Knowledge Graph knows it’s a tower, that it has a height, that it’s in Paris, etc., so Google can anticipate you might want to know some of those facts.) Caffeine was more focused on better indexing and crawling of sites to speed results.

After the event, Scott Huffman, a key engineering director at Google currently working on natural language, told me that part of the impetus for the change was that as more people speak searches into phones, they’re doing so in a more natural way than they type in queries–which is to say more complicated. So Google’s search formulas needed to be able to respond to them.

Partly that is through even great use of the Knowledge Graph, so obvious discrete terms can be identified quickly. But it’s also interesting that although queries are getting more complex, that doesn’t always mean it’s harder to find the right answers. The more terms people use, Huffman says, the more context Google can divine. So those extra words, even if they’re in a more complex query, can give Google better information–but only if the algorithms are adjusted to be able to recognize the relationship among those terms.

Ultimately, he says, “we want to get to a natural conversation” between people and Google search on whatever devices they’re using. …

Read the rest of the story.

YouTube’s Prankster Engineer Keeps Google’s Video Site Humming

YouTube's Billy Biggs

YouTube’s Billy Biggs

From Forbes magazine’s annual innovators list:

You probably don’t know his name, but Billy Biggs is one of the people who has helped keep Google on Forbes’ list of the world’s most innovative companies.

In the third annual version of the list out today, Forbes highlights nearly a dozen next-generation innovators who are expected to create the products and services these companies will be counting on to remain innovation machines.

Biggs, a software engineer at YouTube since Google bought the video site in 2006, has had a hand in most of the major projects there already. But at just 35, he will be called upon to create many more. Overall, he says, his work is about “making sure the systems are built for the future and we’re able to build cool things”–even if he doesn’t yet know what they will be. Here’s a closer look at his work:

Billy Biggs likes to say pranks are his full-time job at YouTube, Google’s video service. For April Fool’s Day 2010, for instance, he and a few other software engineers created a new video display format called TEXTp. Ostensibly aimed at cutting network bandwidth costs, it turned YouTube videos into colorful streams of text characters.

Don’t let those hijinks fool you. Labeled a “hidden gem” by a former YouTube executive, Biggs has had a hand in nearly every major technical project there since Google bought it in 2006. His work as principal architect for YouTube’s computer systems and software and its website is credited with helping YouTube reach an industry-leading 6 billion hours of video a month viewed by more than a billion people.

That massive audience has put the site in a position to challenge television for consumer attention and marketer budgets–just as TV faces many new challenges to its reign as the world’s most popular entertainment medium. …

Read the rest of the story.

Meet The Guy Who Helped Google Beat Apple’s Siri

Google's Jeff Dean

Google’s Jeff Dean

From my Forbes blog:

For all the attention lavished on Siri, the often-clever voice-driven virtual assistant on Apple’s iPhone, Google’s mobile search app lately has impressed a lot more people. That’s partly thanks to Google Now, its own virtual assistant that’s part of that app, which some observers think is more useful than Siri.

But the success of Google’s mobile search stems at least as much from a big improvement over the past year in Google’s speech recognition efforts. That’s the result of research by legendary Google Fellow Jeff Dean and others in applying a fast-emerging branch of artificial intelligence called deep learning to recognizing speech in all its ambiguity and in noisy environments. Replacing part of Google’s speech recognition system last July with one based on deep learning cut error rates by 25% in one fell swoop.

As I wrote in a recent article on deep learning neural networks, the technology tries to emulate the way layers of neurons in the human neocortex recognize patterns and ultimately engage in what we call thinking. Improvements in mathematical formulas coupled with the rise of powerful networks of computers are helping machines get noticeably closer to humans in their ability to recognize speech and images.

Making the most of Google’s vast network of computers has been Dean’s specialty since he joined Google an almost inconceivable 14 years ago, when the company employed only 20 people. He helped create a programming tool called MapReduce that allowed software developers to process massive amounts of data across many computers, as well as BigTable, a distributed storage system that can handle millions of gigabytes of data (known in technical terms as “bazillions.”) Although conceptual breakthroughs in neural networks have a huge role in deep learning’s success, sheer computer power is what has made deep learning practical in a Big Data world.

Dean’s extreme geekitude showed in a recent interview, when he gamely tried to help me understand how deep learning works, in much more detail than most of you will ever want to know. Nonetheless, I’ll warn you that some of this edited interview still gets pretty deep, as it were. Even more than the work of Ray Kurzweil, who joined Google recently to improve the ability of computers to understand natural language, Dean’s work is focused on more basic advances in how to use smart computer and network design to make AI more effective, not on the application to advertising.

Still, Google voice search seems certain to change the way most people find things, including products. So it won’t hurt for marketers and users alike to understand a bit more about how this technology will transform marketing, which after all boils down to how to connect people with products and services they’re looking for. Here’s a deeply edited version of our conversation:

Q: What’s “deep” about deep learning?

A: “Deep” typically refers to the fact that you have many layers of neurons in neural networks. It’s been very hard to train networks with many layers. In the last five years, people have come up with techniques that allow training of networks with more layers than, say, three. So in a sense it’s trying to model how human neurons respond to stimuli.

We’re trying to model not at the detailed molecular level, but abstractly we understand there are these lower-level neurons that construct very primitive features, and as you go higher up in the network, it’s learning more and more complicated features.

Q: What has happened in the last five years to make deep learning a more widely used technique?

A: In the last few years, people have figured out how to do layer-by-layer pre-training [of the neural network]. So you can train much deeper networks than was possible before. The second thing is the use of unsupervised training, so you can actually feed it any image you have, even if you don’t know what’s in it. That really expands the set of data you can consider because now, it’s any image you get your hands on, not just one where you have a true label of what that image is [such as an image you know is a cheetah]. The third thing is just more computational power. …

Read the full interview.

Interview: How Ray Kurzweil Plans To Revolutionize Search At Google

Google's Ray Kurzweil (Photo: Wikipedia)

Google’s Ray Kurzweil (Photo: Wikipedia)

From my Forbes blog:

When Google announced in January that Ray Kurzweil would be joining the company, a lot of people wondered why the phenomenally accomplished entrepreneur and futurist would want to work for a large company he didn’t start.

Kurzweil’s answer: No one but Google could provide the kind of computing and engineering resources he needed to fulfill his life’s work. Ever since age 14, the 65-year-old inventor of everything from music synthesizers to speech recognition systems has aimed to create a true artificial intelligence, even going so far as to predict that machines would match human intelligence by 2029.

Now, as a director of engineering at Google, he’s focusing specifically on enabling computers to truly understand and even speak in natural language. As I outlined in a recent story on deep learning–a fast-rising branch of AI that attempts to mimic the human neocortex to recognize patterns in speech, images, and other data–Kurzweil eventually wants to help create a “cybernetic friend” that knows what you want before you do (that is, if someone else doesn’t get to it first).

Indeed, Kurzweil’s focus is timely from a competitive standpoint as well. Google upped the ante on Apr. 29 by bringing its Google Now voice search app to the iPhone and iPad, in direct competition with Apple’s Siri. And Facebook just revealed that it built a natural-language interface for its Graph Search service announced earlier this year. It’s becoming clear that search is already starting to move beyond the “caveman queries” that characterized effective search techniques until recently.

In a recent interview I conducted for the story, Kurzweil revealed a surprising amount of detail about his planned work at Google. No doubt the nature of that work will evolve as he settles in at the company, but so far, this interview provides possibly the deepest look so far at his plans.

At least initially, that work won’t relate directly to advertising. But marketers will need to understand how profoundly Kurzweil’s and others’ work at Google could change not only what search will become in the age of more and more intelligent machines, but  the way we interact with information and even each other. All that is sure to mean big changes in the nature of advertising and marketing–well before 2029.

Q: In your book, How to Create a Mind, you lay out a theory of how the brain works. Can you explain it briefly?

A: The world is hierarchical. Only mammals have a neocortex, and the neocortex evolved to provide a better understanding of the structure of the world so you can do a better job of modifying it to your needs and solving problems within a hierarchical world. We think in a hierarchical manner. Our first invention was language, and language is hierarchical.

The theory behind deep learning, which I would call hierarchical learning, is that you have a model that reflects the hierarchy in the natural phenomenon you’re trying to learn. If you don’t do that, it’s going to be much weaker and fooled by apparent ambiguities.

Q: How will you apply that theory at Google?

A: What I’ll be doing here is developing hierarchical methods specifically aimed at understanding natural language, extracting semantic meaning … actually developing a way to represent and model the semantic content of documents to do a better job of search and answering questions.

An increasing percentage of queries to Google are in the form of questions. The questions right now can’t have an indefinite complexity to them. But if we can actually model language in a hierarchical fashion, we can do a better job of answering questions and doing search in general, by actually modeling what all these billions of web pages are trying to say. …

Read the rest of the interview.

This Is How Google (And Its Advertisers) Will Really Get Inside Your Head

HAL9000

From my Forbes blog:

Google cofounder Sergey Brin said only half-jokingly back in 2002 that his company aimed to create the equivalent of the intelligent computer HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but without the bug that resulted in it, you know, killing people.

More than a decade later, Google isn’t nearly there, for better or worse. But lately, it has been aiming much more directly at building HAL, or what’s sometimes called the Google Brain. As I wrote in a recent article, a fast-emerging branch of artificial intelligence called deep learning is helping Google and other companies and researchers produce significant advances in machines that at least approach the way we think. It won’t be long–for better or worse–before their work also has a profound impact on marketing and advertising as well. …

Read the rest of the analysis.