Pretty much every product that Google works on has to go through gatekeeper Marissa Mayer, who decides whether it's ready to be released or needs more work.
She even approves every single Google Doodle that adorns the search giant's homepages around the world. From being hired as the first female engineer nine and a half years ago to becoming one of the key decision makers at Google, she's come a long way.
"We were very small, just 20 people," Mayer, now Google's vice president of search products and user experience, recalls. "There was a tremendous amount of energy, scruffy entrepreneurialism and a sense of hope. We really felt we were working on something that might change the world. We were all very excited to be working on such an important problem and we thought it would really have an impact. Even from that vantage point, though, it wasn't clear to us what type of impact it would have."
Mayer simply didn't anticipate that Google, which had just signed a deal to become Netscape's default search engine when she started, would turn into the biggest internet company in the world. "I actually felt that we had about a two per cent chance of succeeding. That might sound tiny, but actually that's about a hundred times higher than the average start-up. I thought that the odds relative to the other start-ups were very, very good – but even with those odds there was still a lot left to chance."
Chance, it seems, is something Mayer doesn't rate that highly. She's brainy, precise and ambitious, obsessive even, when it comes to shaping Google's product suite.
Critics, notably Silicon Valley gossip blog Valleywag, call her mechanical and robotic – and maybe she has to be to stay on top of it all. She looks after 150 product managers, and every month 10-12 major products are pitched to her.
On top of that, 1,000-2,000 outside projects need to be reviewed. She has to make decisions all the time, and insiders call the rigid process of her critiquing and approving new features 'the Marissa Gauntlet'. Usually, each team has no more than 10 minutes to present their projects. During this time, though, they get her undivided attention – she won't check her email or take phone calls.
Aside from the official meetings, Mayer's office door is open for an hour each day, so Googlers can go in, ask questions and get more advice on a project. Of course, as her job title suggests, the focus is on the user experience. She's absolutely devoted to the needs of the 'end user' and often uses her mom as a reference point to check whether an idea is simple enough.
But what other criteria does she take into account when she decides whether a product is a goer? "I look for the insight and innovation that's baked into the idea," Mayer explains. "I also look at the overall energy and strength of the team that's presenting it. Then I develop an overall sense of confidence that it's both a good product idea and that we have a good team who are interested in moving it forward. If those two things come into alignment, it's going to be a successful product."
Innovation is her real passion (along with cakes – she's actually invested in a speciality cake company called I Dream Of Cake). She uses her '20 per cent time' (the time Google apportions its employees for personal projects) to figure out how the search giant can continue to innovate as it builds new products.
The future of search
As the self-proclaimed search addict points out, there's still a lot of opportunity for innovation, change and progress in search. Although typically tight-lipped about future products, she does hint at the direction Google is going to take.
"We think it's really important to move beyond just keywords and allow people to ask questions, and maybe access things more easily from their mobile phone," she says. "We're also looking at how to weave new media into it and how we can bring books, videos and news right into the search experience. And then there are various pieces of personalisation."
To celebrate Google's 10th birthday Mayer laid down her thoughts on the future of search in a recent blog post. She believes that, while search is 90 per cent solved, the last 10 per cent will take decades to complete.
She compares search to biology and physics in the 1500s or 1600s and claims the famous 10 blue links of the Google search page are just the beginning. Universal search, which adds images, videos, news, books and maps to the search results, is a first step in the right direction.
Mayer reveals that the team has been evolving the interface design and user experience of the rich media-heavy search results since the launch in May 2007 and that we'll see the fruits of this experimentation in the coming months.
Mayer also believes that personalisation – "What can we understand about the user and how can we tailor the results to them?" – will be an important part of search. Search engines will be better because they'll understand more about the user.
"Maybe the search engine of the future will know where you're located," Mayer suggests. "Maybe they'll know what you know already, or what you learned earlier today. Or maybe they'll fully understand your preferences because you've chosen to share that information with us. We aren't sure which personal signals will be most valuable, but we're investing in research and experimentation on personalised search now because we think this will be very important later."
The social aspect plays a significant part, too. Mayer explains: "We really need to harness people's friends better to understand which news to direct them to, which local events to direct them to… these are all things that we think are intriguing."
Mayer describes the concept of the ideal search engine as "Your best friend with instant access to all the world's facts and a photographic memory you've seen and know." To some that might seem scary: however, she claims a user's privacy is respected by a good user experience that really embodies transparency and control. In Google's personalised search, for example, you can already see your web history and remove items if you wish.
Google will also continue to focus on cloud computing, the idea that you can store some of your information on the web. "It's actually better replicated and better cared for than if you have just a single copy of that data on your laptop," she enthuses.
"That's really exciting. It would be very good for consumers to actually start using some of the server farms that many of the big internet companies have been building to store their data more reliably. It allows you to free yourself up. You're not married to a computer, you can access your data from anywhere. How you use the cloud is completely dependent on you. You can decide to put all of your data in the cloud or you can decide to put very little of your data in the cloud – it's your choice."
For example, you might want to store your own medical records at Google Health and access them from anywhere there's internet access. Mayer is nearing her own 10th anniversary at Google but for the time being has no intention of leaving. "I'm a geek and Google is a great place for geeks," she says. "I really love my job because I get to work on new problems and have new challenges each day. I'm currently working on our Geo products, Google Book Search and Google Health. They're all things I'm excited to be part of."
First published in .net Magazine, Issue 184
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