Talking Information Overload with Google's CIO

Posted by: Catherine Holahan on March 8, 2008

I’ve been in downtown Austin less than two hours and I am already feeling overwhelmed. The welcome bag given to conference attendees is filled with an indigestable amount of information on countless panels, parties, and product launches scheduled for the week. It weighs more than my carry-on.

Here in Austin’s convention center, a kid is playing virtual guitar in front of a clapping crowd while a tourist takes a picture with Master Chief, the lead character in the Halo game series. Meanwhile, dozens of visitors are quietly listening to book readings about Second Life sex fantasies and Web site marketing. I’m no longer sure if I’m in Austin, a virtual world, or Barnes & Noble.

So it’s fitting that one of the first items on my agenda is to talk about information overload with Douglas Merrill, Google’s CIO and VP of Engineering.

Merrill and I find a quiet nook in the Four Seasons Hotel's sun drenched lobby to chat. With his purple shirt, shoulder skimming brown hair, and earring, Merrill isn't exactly what I was expecting from Google's former senior director of Information Systems. He looks more rocker than engineer. In fact, with his Ph.D in Psychology from Princeton, Merrill is more Sigmund Freud than Sergey Brin.

Merrill begins to talk about his passion: making sense of tons of data. "How do you think about information overload in today's world?" he asks. "If you think about it, there are ten hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, there are 10,000 new blogs every year, the total information doubles every year," he says, adding that this last figure refers largely to the amount of digital data.

Merrill's answer, of course, is search. And, as far as he is concerned, even Google has only scratched the surface of Web search.

In the future, search will be more personal, multi-lingual, and considerably more mobile, says Merrill. Google will increasingly use what it knows of individual users online activities and search histories to tailor results, he says. For example, Google will know that if someone with my tech-heavy search history looks up "Apple" I want the company, not the fruit. Already, Google enables users to opt in to a personalized search program. "The future of search is personalization," says Merrill.

The challenge with personalizing search is doing it in a way that makes people comfortable. Searchers are less likely to use a personal search engine if they fear their queries could be exposed. Google needs to ensure users have the ability to turn off personalization when they want, says Merrill.

Search will also grow increasingly multilingual, says Merrill. The company has Web pages in 90 languages and can automatically translate many of them into a user's native tongue with the click of a button. The goal for Google is to eventually return results on subjects from a variety of countries and languages in a users' preferred tongue.

What Google's search won't be, says Merrill, is vertical. Moves such as those recently taken by Ask.com to design search engines with information tailored to certain demographic or interest group are going in the wrong direction, says Merrill. The world's information should be universally accessible in one place, he says. "We believe the right approach is universal search."

Our conversation ends with one more piece of information to add to my list. Google is having a party to promote its Open Social developer program later tonight. I wonder if I have room for the details in my conference bag...

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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