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Sun 9 Mar 2008 04:00 AM

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Lost in translation

Silicon Valley tech giant Google is vying to become the main growth platform for entrepreneurs in the Middle East. The firm's CIO Douglas Merrill tells Andrew White why the future of technology will be driven by 'search', and why a successful Arabic translation tool could help to bring East and West closer together.

Silicon Valley tech giant Google is vying to become the main growth platform for entrepreneurs in the Middle East. The firm's CIO Douglas Merrill tells Andrew White why the future of technology will be driven by 'search', and why a successful Arabic translation tool could help to bring East and West closer together.

Dressed in a blue and sepia shirt, dark jeans and sporting an earring in each ear, there is something self-consciously laid-back about Douglas Merrill. Not that we should be surprised - as CIO of Google, Merrill is living testimony to the search giant's maxim that ‘You can be serious without a suit'.

We needed to solve the web search problem not just in American English... but in every language on the planet.

Within seconds of sitting down, Merrill recounts his overdressed first day at Google HQ - "We don't wear sports jackets here, dude," he was apparently told - and quotes verbatim from the search giant's list of ‘10 things we have found to be true', a corporate philosophy that namechecks both Microsoft and The Grateful Dead. It is an unusual corporate culture that stems back to Google's founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and their belief in doing things differently from the accepted wisdom.

"At the time we were founded everyone thought that web search was a solved problem, but they were wrong. Larry and Sergey realised that the future lay in making all the world's information universally accessible, and useful," says Merrill.

"We believe that wherever you are, on whatever device you happen to have to hand, you should be able to reach the world's information. If you have a question, or you want to tell a story, or you want to share a photograph, then you should be able to take content, and store it somewhere in the clouds."

Google has been working hard on this ‘cloud computing' model, and Merrill insists that with internet access almost ubiquitous, the future of technology "will be driven by search".

"More and more information is becoming created every day, and humans are not psychologically very well prepared to deal with that - we get information overload very easily," he says. "We don't believe that in the future you'll be able to live without search." The web search "problem", as Merrill outlines it, is that for the system to really work, users need to be able to search in all languages. And while Google has been working on the puzzle since its inception, he admits that there is still a long way to go.

"We needed to solve the web search problem not just in American English, but also in Arabic, in Russian, in Chinese, and in every language on the planet," he says. "Now we're better at some languages than others, and we're better at some markets than others, but we can do much, much better."

Google is nevertheless making progress, as evinced by The Association of Computing Machines' - the world's largest computer science organisation - recent decision to reward the web giant for its automatic machine translation work.

"We actually have an AI programme that reads English and Arabic, and converts between the two of them," explains Merrill. "It's not as good translation as a true translator, as true translation is very, very hard. But you can get the meaning, you can understand.

"The father of AI, Alan Turing, set the challenge: the definition of intelligence was the ability to speak with a human as if the machine were human," he continues. "Since he set that goal in the 1940s, we've been systemically trying to translate and failing. But for the first time, Google's automatic translating from English to Arabic and back - and we also won an award for English to Mandarin and back - is actually quite good. We're very proud of that research."

Google's dedication to Arabic and Mandarin confirms that both the Middle East and China are key to the company's growth plans for the next decade. Merrill is spending around 50% of his time on - if not in - the Arab world, and is intent on dragging the region's small and medium-sized businesses online.

"We believe that sustainable social change comes from sustainable economic change, and sustainable economic change comes from job creation," he explains. "We want to use Google as a platform for small and medium-sized businesses and entrepreneurs, to grow their business and create new jobs. We believe this is key to getting additional search activity, and social and economic growth.
There are roughly one tenth the number of Czech speakers in the world as there are Arab speakers, and yet there's almost 20 times as much Czech material on the web versus Arabic material," he continues. "We're doing a lot of work to change that, and we need to find a way to add Arabic content to the online world, whether this be through scanning books, through putting up kiosks so local people can get online, or any other way.

"We are a business, of course, so at the end of the day we have shareholders, and yet we have a very long time horizon," he adds. "We are blessed by the fact that our management believes that sometimes you must invest for years to make money, so part of our investment is helping grow
online content and helping local businesses come online.

Being able to show 99.9% of the world’s information is better than being able to show 0%. That’s our choice.

While it undoubtedly helps that the shareholders take a long-term view, the company would not be here today were it not for its steady growth and the ensuing financial success. Looking back at the dot.com bust of the early 2000s, Merrill admits that Google would not be in the position it is now without delivering returns on its late-90s potential.

"What differentiated those companies that survived the dot.com bust from those that didn't, was simply whether they were making money or not," he laughs. "One of the things which has always been true about Google is that we have always focused on users, and trying to serve users' needs. But this isn't some kind of hypothetical user's needs - we're looking at real things.

"For example, we didn't worry about stickiness and all these things that aren't actually real, we worried about adding real value," he insists. "Whether the valuations were right during the bubble or not, I don't know, but the companies that created value are still around.

To say that Google is "still around" somewhat undersells the success of the Mountain View, California-based corporation. Its IPO in August 2004 valued the company at an astonishing US$23bn, while the company recorded revenues of US$16.6bn last year (up 56% from 2006) - figures that would surely keep even the most demanding of shareholders happy.

Although Merrill declines to reveal how many staff Google employs in the region - "there are many, many engineers at headquarters working on the problem [in the Arab world], so the number's a little squirrelly" - he is adamant that Google isn't looking just at the bottom line in a region celebrated for its handsome returns on investment. More than that, he claims that the company sees a unique opportunity to contribute to the dialogue between East and West.

"We want to help get folks online, and let them tell their stories," he asserts. "Imagine a world in which average Americans can truly read what is being said about them by many Arabic voices, in the Arab world. Won't that world be a better world to live in?

"I want to live in that world, a world where Americans can read people's stories in Arabic, that they tell at the moment they want to tell it," Merrill continues. "History has always been written by the winners. What's the difference between a revolution and a civil war? If the government wins, it's a civil war. If the insurgents win, it's a revolution. Why should truth get to be determined by who won? That's wrong.

Noble sentiments, but then it cannot be argued that Google has always sided with the freedom of the masses. In 2006, for example, there was controversy when it launched a self-censored search engine in China, to the satisfaction of the government in Beijing. The company also removes content related to Nazism in Germany, and limits search results in France.

"Google follows local laws - we have to, and we want to," explains Merrill. "We're all parents, we're all citizens, and we want to support the right outcomes and sometimes that involves taking certain results out, and when we do that we try to mark that we've done so.
All the search engines in China censor the results, but we do something which I'm pretty proud of, which is that if you do a search and results are removed from the index, we put a note at the bottom of the page, so at least you know that there were results there that we couldn't show you," he continues. "From our perspective, being able to show 99.9% of the world's information is better than being able to show 0%. That's our choice.

Merrill insists that Google's compliance with local search restrictions does not indicate the end of discussions on the issue. Instead, he contends that the restrictions are more often the starting point for a positive conversation on the merits of such an imposition.

We often find that early on the conversations starts with ‘Oh, the internet's going to destroy my culture', but what we've actually found is that the internet and things like YouTube have actually strengthened local culture," he says. "We actually find that suddenly people are holding hands around the world, wrapped around a culture. As a result, we actually find the conversations changing after a while."

One conversation that will occupy Googlers worldwide over the coming months is the prospect of consolidation within the industry. Last month, Microsoft made an unsolicited US$40bn takeover bid for rival search engine Yahoo. The bid was rejected, but the possibility of two of the world's three largest search engines coming together, has left Google sweating over the risk it may become the odd man out.

"Google believes that such an acquisition would be anti-competitive, as we believe that competition is very important, and that having multiple multinational search players and multiple local search players will make your search experience better," says Merrill. "Competition makes all of us better. We don't believe the acquisition should go through, but who knows what will happen? The future is a fuzzy thing," he continues.

"Focusing on the opposition is like trying to drive a car while looking in the rear view mirror - it's just not effective. I want to look at the road, at my users, and whatever my users want, I'm going to try and do it for them."

Google’s advertising spaceGoogle earns revenue from online and mobile advertising related to its internet search, web-based e-mail, online mapping, office productivity, social networking, and video sharing as well as selling advertising-free versions of the same technologies. However, advertisers don't pay the company simply to display ads - money only changes hands if the user clicks on the ad.

"I only make money if the advertisement is as useful to you as a search result would have been," explains Merrill. "As a result that advertiser got a very hot quality lead, and is likely to make money off of this search, and they're giving a little bit of that back.

"I only win if the local economy expands - and so a lot of our advertisers don't actually look on Google as part of their advertising spend," he continues. "With most advertising budgets it's something you spend, but you have no idea what happens, as you're ‘building a brand'. When you advertise on Google, you know what happened and you know what return you got, so actually they're counting it as a cost-of-sales.

It is for this reason that Merrill believes Google will not cannibalise the existing advertising market in emerging regions. As the total advertising spend increases in a region, there will still be room for traditional offline advertising - as well as high-Returns-On-Investment online advertising.

"If you look at the total of all the online advertising spend last year was about US$16bn or US$17bn, so we're a teeny fraction of the world's advertising market," he argues. "I don't think advertisers will ever take their messages off billboards, but I think they'll add online."

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