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As Google turns 10, advice for its next decade

As Google celebrates its 10th birthday, The Times talked with Internet experts about what the company should do over the next decade. Here's what Michael Arrington, Kevin Bankston, John Battelle, Max Levchin, Marissa Mayer, Mike Sheldon, Danny Sullivan and Siva Vaidhyanathan had to say.

Michael Arrington, editor and founder of TechCrunch

Michael Arrington Google continues to fight a multi-front war. They dominate search and search marketing, which is where most online advertising dollars are spent today. That gives them a huge war chest to explore other areas for both defensive and offensive purposes. Google Docs and Google Apps to try to disrupt Microsoft Office revenue and further erode the need for Windows, for example. Their new Chrome browser fits in with this perfectly. Chrome is designed to run online apps very efficiently, and to the extent online Javascript-based apps continue to improve, there is less and less of a need for desktop apps tied to a specific operating system. Microsoft, of course, won't simply roll over and die, so this is a decade-long battle.

In search, Google needs to continue to dominate text, but also explore rich-media search. Today, no one can actually search inside of a picture, video or sound file to see what's in there. Instead search engines rely on descriptive text data about this rich media to run searches. In the future they need to develop artificial intelligence techniques that allow them to read video and picture files directly. If there is a picture of George Bush or the Eiffel Tower, Google needs to see it and index it without text aids. Whoever figures that out first will own the next stage of search.

Finally, social networking is the new search. Everyone's doing it but no one can monetize it effectively yet. Google isn't even in the game yet compared to MySpace and Facebook, so they have a long way to go. And no one knows how to monetize it yet. Someone will, though.

Kevin Bankston, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation

Kevin Bankston In the next decade, Google will continue to be the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of digital free speech and privacy. On the one hand, Google's innovative tools for finding and publishing online content have been and will continue to be a boon to the Internet's billions of users, fostering free speech and open access to information on an unprecedented scale. On the other hand, Google will also continue to be the primary innovator when it comes to finding more powerful and invasive ways of tracking and monetizing Internet users' private online activities.

Google's credo is "Don't be evil," yet it's building the biggest horde of sensitive Internet usage data this side of the National Security Agency. In the next decade, Google needs to prove that its commitment to privacy is more than just talk, not only in the design of its products, but in its lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C.

Google is the undisputed 800-pound gorilla of the Internet tech sector, and it should start ...

... throwing that weight around on Capitol Hill by demanding on behalf of its users an update to this country' woefully out-of-date electronic privacy laws. If Google is going to continue innovating in ways that pose new threats to privacy -- and it most certainly will -- it should also be the lead innovator when it comes to creating new privacy protections for Internet users, both through computer code and the legal code.

John Battelle, founder and chairman of Federated Media Publishing and author of "The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture"

John Battelle Google is a company in the midst of a pretty significant identity crisis, but it probably doesn't know that yet. When you are at the point of having so much cash flow and so much success, and you have an employee culture based on being the smartest, best-treated, most important people in the world, you tend to think you can do just about anything. You believe you can solve any problem and take on any challenge. That is a wonderful thing. But if you end up trying to do everything, you can end up forgetting who you are.

We have seen this cycle before. Lord knows that Eric Schmidt, in particular, and many others at Google have seen it as well. Shifts in how culture interacts with technology regularly surprise dominant, near-monopolistic companies. We saw it with IBM and mainframes, who, despite knowing it was coming, lost the interface to Microsoft and Windows. And we saw it again with Windows, which is losing the interface to the Web, search and Google. It remains to be seen if Google will be surprised by a shift from search to something else.

But if anything is more certain than death or taxes, it's that we'll move beyond search to a new interface to technology. With ubiquitous mobility, geo-location and mobile devices that are integrated into the fabric of our lives, the Internet will know where you are, what you have done in the past, and what you may want based on intelligent algorithms. That's pretty sci-fi, but search was pretty sc-fi 20 years ago.

Max Levchin, founder and CEO of Slide, chairman of Yelp

Max Levchin The most amazing thing about Google to me is the huge number of small -- and not so small -- online businesses that depend on Google entirely, not just for their customer reach, but even their brand. Great many sites today are reached through Google instead of direct navigation, simply because it's too convenient to rely on Google's ability to figure out what the user meant to reach for. This power is quite amazing and hints at future directions for Google: a search engine that knows what I need before I know it, a discovery system that can introduce me to new concepts, a sort of command-line interface to the Web.

Yet, with all this power, Google doesn't have one Holy Grail of consumer product longevity: network effects visible at consumer level. A user using Google search for the first time today won't obviously know she is not the only one, and may be tempted by a competing product, though the powerful market network effects will keep advertisers staying put for a long time if anyone came close to beating Google technically.

The most important thing Google management will have to do over the next decade is figure out how to keep the spirit of entrepreneurial technical and business innovation alive and well within the rapidly scaling company: Events of enormous discontinuous wealth creation among the rank and file are certain to become a lot more scarce while many of the truly brilliant early contributors will age and seek to diversify their time-spend a bit. Fantastic perks like food and massages will only cut it so far. Innovation around compensation models will be an unlikely but key area of intellectual investment for Google for the next few years.

Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience at Google

Marissa Mayer I think there will be a continued focus on innovation, particularly in search. Search is an unsolved problem. We have a good 90 to 95% of the solution, but there is a lot to go in the remaining 10%. How do we monetize new forms of content as they come online such as video, maps and books? How do we help content providers transition their businesses online and build healthy businesses?

Also, when you look at this notion of cloud computing, that is particularly interesting. When you look at what has happened to Gmail, docs, spreadsheets and, now, this week, Chrome, it tells a powerful story about how information can be stored online and how we can use online tools to facilitate easier sharing and collaboration. This is a different computing paradigm than what people adhered to up until now. Clearly we are going to continue to focus on that.

Ultimately, I think we will focus on what serves users and Google best: Making the Web better and making it easier to use the Web.

(You can read the full Marissa Mayer interview here.)

Mike Sheldon, president of Deutsch LA

Mike Sheldon Google will continue to receive as much money as they can from advertising, which is 99% of their business. Their $4.2 billion in profits are about people paying to get the top results on their search engine. They will continue to maximize that and try to get a bigger piece of the pie. I also see them expanding from owning search to owning content. Look for Google to have a breadcrumb trail that leads all the way into social networking via Orkut, and information via Knol, and even browsing via iGoogle and the new browser they released this week called Chrome. They are also entrepreneurial in their bones.

They spent $2.1 billion on research last year. That's quite an R&D department. They will be inventing over the next 10 years. Google Maps changed the way we view the world. Look for more inventions from them, particularly in the field of interface design and how people experience information.

As for what they should do, they should still grow organically. Build it, don't buy it. You can ruin the spirit of a company, the way that Microsoft did, by being the guy who buys everybody else. That is not the heart of what birthed Google. They have to be careful about how they go about growing.

They should also be extraordinarily careful about still being seen as the company whose motto is "Don't be evil." Unlike trying to wean yourself off Microsoft, which is very hard, it's very easy to jump over to another search engine, home page or browser. Google can't afford to alienate the people who use them for so much throughout their lives. Everyone is watching for that. They are not abusing their power now, but they are in a position to.

Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of SearchEngineLand.com

Danny Sullivan Google has been saying their business is search, ads and apps for about two years now, and I expect they'll continue to grow in all those areas. In search, they're continuing to outdistance the competition, which is in large disarray. This only leaves Google to get stronger in the years to come.

In advertising, I don't think all their offline attempts will be successful, but I do expect they'll grow their advertising business. Apps are their newest area and where they face the most challenge, but I think they're ahead of the curve in the area of the Internet being the operating system where you run apps, rather than your computer operating system.

Google's not all powerful, of course. The iPhone has been eye-opening for a lot of people about what you can do when you know someone's location. You have special non-Google applications that tell you local events and restaurants. Why is Google not doing that? People want this kind of information. It's searchable information. It's in vertical spaces like this where other companies have the most opportunity.

As an overall search company, Google can't really be beat from a competitive standpoint. Microsoft is struggling, and it has huge resources to toss into the fight. Everyone else will have an even more difficult time.

What's more likely to slow Google down is on the legal front. I think that as they get bigger, pressure will come on the government to see if there are some existing or new laws that should be written to curb the company's dominance.

Google really should take a very strong role in the creation of an Internet or online bill of rights. They have said they would like to see someone put that together, but they themselves have to lobby for it and do it very actively. I think there is a lot of concern about what data is out there and who has the right to that data and people want to feel secure about it.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, associate professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia and author of the forthcoming book, "The Googlization of Everything"

Siva Vaidhyanathan As we come to terms with just how important Google is in our lives, we are starting to raise some pretty strong questions about how Google handles our personal information, how long it's stored, what role our searches play in their advertising business and so forth. Google is still a long ways from fully explaining those relationships and those policies. But the company seems to have taken that charge seriously.

It seems destined to becoming a monopoly in North America and Europe, which is going to raise all sorts of questions about the power of this company not only to govern advertising, privacy and data collection issues, but also simply in terms of what we are going to think is important in the future. Google dictates what's important on the Web right now. It has a profound amount of power.

I don't think we have seen any evidence that Google abuses its power, but we would make a mistake if we think that Google is simply a neutral lens to the world.

The most fundamental question about Google's relationship with us and our role in the world is how much are we going to let Google's algorithms pick our favorites for us? The principle behind Google's algorithm is that we the crowd, we the people, somehow are doing the picking but it's not really that simple. If something become important and raises in the search ranks, it becomes very hard to displace and reinforces its position. Any results that are very popular are likely to generate more links in the future.
The most exciting and potentially beneficial move Google is making is in the wireless field both with its wireless operating system and in terms of its efforts to free up underused spectrum for cheap or free wifi. In those two areas, Google's really fighting the good fight to make the mobile phone world a bit saner and cheaper and to make radio spectrum a little more open and usable.

It's such a fascinating animal to try to look at. The company is so troublesome and potentially dangerous in the areas in which it has already succeeded. In the areas it has yet to succeed in, it's definitely doing all the right things and is worth cheering at this point

-- Jessica Guynn

 
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