iMedia Connection

An inside look at Google's approach to marketing

Doug Edwards

Introduction

Note from the editor: The following is an excerpt from "I'm Feeling Lucky," by Doug Edwards. Edwards, former Google employee no. 59, offers a first-ever inside view of the titanic company. In this excerpt, Edwards discusses his attempts at formulating Google's marketing plan.

"In late summer '99, we had such a hard time getting anyone to return our calls or take us seriously," Cindy later recalled. "We did hire one firm, but we had to let them go because they only worked with clients that allowed them to invest, and Larry and Sergey said 'no.' That set us in the direction of going it alone -- hire a small team, build institutional knowledge, and establish direct relationships with the media, analysts, and influencers." But in a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum, the media wouldn't talk to Google, because Google wasn't a company people were talking about.

"I contacted both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Merc," Cindy said. "I just wanted to get a relationship established. The Chron never called me back. I finally got hold of someone on the business desk at the Merc who told me they would not be covering Google because our Palo Alto office was 'too far north.'"

Growing by word of mouth suited Larry and Sergey's animosity toward advertising. They scoffed-at profligate startups and their Super Bowl spots because TV ads lacked accountability. You could dump millions and not know if you had converted a single viewer into a user. Engineers rebelled against such inefficient excess in the name of "brand building."

"Brand is what's left over when you stop moving forward," was a sentiment engineer Matt Cuts heard expressed in a meeting with Larry and Sergey. It was only when a product stopped working better than the competition that branding became a factor. Then you'd already lost. For a long time, Larry refused to even use the "b-word" because "branding" implied that technology alone was insufficient for success.

My marketing plan would change that. Larry and Sergey would see all the ways in which we would get the attention of users and companies and convince them to try Google. I sat staring at my monitor with my feet on the door-desk and my keyboard on my lap and started typing.

"Google's ultimate goal," I wrote, "is to become a mass market search solution, directly serving end users as well as supplying search technology to other destination sites." Then I started laying out the marketing initiatives that would take us there.

My first week, I asked Cindy for a copy of Google's strategic plan. She just looked at me. Google didn't have a strategic plan. Other than the handful of PowerPoint slides used to secure our venture capital, nothing existed in writing about what the company was trying to accomplish. It all resided in the heads of Larry and Sergey, who were never in the mood to discuss it.

I found a copy of the VC presentation, and sure enough, our strategy was right on the opening slide -- a "Doonesbury" cartoon in which entrepreneur Bernie says, "Look at the search engine guys. They've got no hard assets, just software that drives everyone crazy. And yet they have market values in the billions! Of course, if someone comes along with a smart search engine, one that actually works, those companies evaporate overnight."

I flipped through the slides, but there wasn't much more than a broad outline of Google's management team, a list of competitors, some market share numbers, a budget, and a slide that read, "What's the secret to Google? 4+ years of R&D at Stanford and Google.com + Highly skilled team." That really cleared things up.

"When I tried to put in more detail, they didn't want to share anything," Salar explained when I asked him about the thinking behind the skimpy content. Pulling together the slides had been his first task upon joining the company. Larry and Sergey knew that some of the firms they were pitching already had investments in competing search engines, and they had no intention of giving away their good ideas.

"That made the presentation kind of dry," Salar went on, "so Sergey's solution was to annotate it with clip art the night before our first meeting." I tried to picture the power brokers of Silicon Valley intently pondering an investment of 10 million dollars as cheesy money trees and sparkling dollar signs sprouted around Google's potential revenue streams (sales of technology and targeted advertising). Then I imagined their reaction to Google's aggressive traffic projections, which showed the company conducting 50 percent of all iInternet searches within two years. Even in Silicon Valley, nobody grew that fast.

In 1999, you would have needed uncanny foresight or powerful pharmaceuticals to envision Google's future success. Or maybe just money to burn. Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia must have had something, because the two VC firms invested twelve and a half million dollars each, leading cynics in the Valley to define "Googling" as "getting funding without a business plan."

The slide deck said nothing about marketing Google, so my plan would start from scratch. I drew a pyramid chart showing a hierarchy of users, with "tech savvy" at the top and "newbies" at the bottom, and outlined a three-phase program to move us through all the stages in between. I asked questions for which we had no answers. What was the size of the tech-savvy market? Had we already won the majority of it? Would we need new products to appeal to less sophisticated users? Research could tell us that, but meanwhile I offered ideas about making proprietary legal databases and domain-registration records searchable and launching a Google Fellows program to reward dedicated users. I felt confident sending the plan to our executive staff. It contained no proposal to spend big on mainstream media and instead emphasized the importance of gathering data. Larry and Sergey seemed to like data.

"Great job," Sergey responded. "This is a good starting place." True, he disputed most of my supporting arguments, but he administered no gut shot that left my plan writhing on the floor spilling its insights. Larry was more reserved, but he liked the questions I was asking and thought the idea of the Google Fellows was "cool."

Sergey quibbled with my assertion that speed would not be an important differentiator as everyone moved to broadband connections. "Speed is an issue for me," he said, "and I have a cable modem at home. If search engines were faster and better, they could be integrated into your thought process." He saw Google becoming an invisible component in every user's decision making, not just a tool for finding a particular fact. Apparently "brain integration" was one of our hitherto undisclosed corporate goals.

He also discounted my conclusion that we needed to add targeted services to steal page views away from the big portals. "Nonfunctionality is a feature," he instructed me. "We don't need to increase page views by adding products." Larry and Sergey always thought in terms of scale. Sergey saw that there was a far greater gap between the total numbers of users visiting each portal than there was between the numbers of pages visitors viewed once they were at a portal. The winner in search wasn't going to be the site generating a few extra clicks from the users it already had; it was going to be the site with the most users overall. Google, Sergey had decided, would be the latter.

Excerpted from "I'm Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59" by Douglas Edwards. Copyright (c) 2011 by Douglas Edwards. Used with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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