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In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives

October 1, 2011

If one is asked to what extent Google has changed the life we life in, three major insights seem to be apparent. Google has changed the way we look for information, Google has changed the way we can generate profits on the Internet through advertising, and finally, Google has changed the way we think about managing and storing data.

The core of Google is its Internet search engine. Google search is based on a mechanism called PageRank, which ranks certain web pages in its search results, based on their importance with regard to the number of web pages that are linked to them. The higher the number of linkages the more important a web page is considered. The PageRank score of a website is then combined with a number of more traditional information retrieval techniques, such as frequency, font size, capitalization, and the position of the keyword to provide final search results.

The power of PageRank was that it got better as the web increased. New sites led to more links, which made specific queries even more accurate. Interestingly, Google’s search engine in return accelerated the growth of the web as better search provided more incentives for people to make new information accessible. This goes back to the “long tail theory” that even the weirdest piece of information can now be accessed by a tiny but appreciative number of people connected to the web.

Google has also revolutionized the way to make money on the Internet. Google’s AdWords allows advertisers to target their ads to actual searches by matching search queries with pre-defined ad words. Ads appear then in the form of small text boxes next to search results without annoying customers too much.

Even more important, while previously companies were billed according to the number of views of the ad, Google’s AdWords scheme is based on billing system that charges per click. So with AdWords, companies only paid when advertising actually worked. Once again, Google was able to target smaller “long tail enterprises” that previously could not afford advertising in mass media. The self-service system makes it possible for Google to sell advertising in small quantities to small companies, while keeping overhead costs low.

In addition, Google launched AdSense as an income generating business model for small “long tail businesses”, such as blogs and small business websites – again using a self-service model. Through Google, small businesses and blogs can now sell space on their websites to potential advertisers, while sharing incoming revenue streams with Google in return.

Finally, Google’s “cloud” has revolutionized the way we think about data and data storage. Data once stored on somebody’s computer, can now be stored in the Internet through a number of Google applications, such as Google docs, making your information accessible wherever you are. And as Gmail has demonstrated, the space available is actually growing. Never again do we have to delete a single email.

Now, Google’s technological advances have obviously blown my mind. Though there is also a lot to learn from Google in terms of organizational leadership and learning – especially for somebody like me, who currently spends more than 30 hours per week working on these topics.

While organizations across different industries are struggling how to improve their organizational learning capacity to adapt more effectively to rapid changes in customer needs, Google’s very core business model is built on the principal of an artificial organizational learning mechanism. By using “logs”, Google is tracing and learning from its collected data beyond mere content. Logs have become key to the evolution of its search engine, as they have allowed Google to capture information such as on how much time one spends per site, how often one goes to the first search result, or how one punctuates.

Google captures information on all aspects of human behavior – how we think, what we do, and what we like or dislike. For example, Google knows immediately whether we are happy or unhappy by tracking “long clicks”, which indicates that somebody went to a search result without returning, versus “short clicks”, where users follow a link and immediately returned. Collecting real time information allows Google to constantly innovate and improve its products and overall organization.

Now, what is interesting from an adaptive organizational leadership perspective is that Google doesn’t innovate in isolation, but it makes use of existing customers to help throughout the design process of its various products. In adaptive leadership education we refer to this mindset as “giving the work back to the people”. Providing free telephone directory assistant to assist the development of Google’s speech recognition ability is one example for this new leadership mindset that Google has successfully adopted. Its self-service mechanisms for AdWords and AdSense are other examples of letting the customer do the work. In order to successfully target the “long tail”, companies must “give the work back” in order to keep their overheads low.

Though, Google also raises several concerns from an adaptive leadership perspective. One of them is the danger of having one person, organization, or entity that is expected to provide the “right” answer to any question we might have. More than 70% of searches in the US are Google searches. So is it really a good thing for Google to have the power of providing the “right” answer or deciding what exists and what doesn’t? Do we really want an algorithm to decide what our life should look like or not look like? I still feel that humans themselves need to decide on their individual and collective purpose, so may be there is indeed also a way for Google to learn from the concept of adaptive leadership?

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