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Google Pledges Transparency, Debuts New Gadgets

In an overture to the press and analysts, the company put its executives on stage and unveiled new search-related products.

Google invited journalists and industry analysts to its Mountain View, CA, campus yesterday to pledge greater transparency to the press and investors. It also announced four new search-related products and pleaded with journalists to pay more attention to its core mission – search – which it claims is more powerful than ever.

Larry Page (left) and Sergey Brin, founders of Google. (Credit: Courtesy of Google.)

For years, Google executives have been steadfastly close-mouthed about the company’s future plans. But this policy has led to rampant guesswork and speculation in the press, often making potential partners uncomfortable about working with Google, said Elliot Schrage, the company’s vice president of global communications and public affairs.

“It’s confusing and inefficient if our partners keep getting conflicting messages about what our intentions are,” Schrage told journalists assembled at the company’s annual press day. “Obviously there are lots of proprietary and confidential things we’re doing that you are intrigued to write about, that we are not going to be particularly interested in telling you. But we’ve made a strategic decision that we need to be more transparent and to communicate somewhat more in order to reduce confusion.”

Among the things Google was willing to communicate at the event were four new products: the fourth iteration of Google Desktop, a news-and-information sidebar that now includes free-floating mini-applications, called Google Gadgets; Google Notebook, an electronic scratch pad that allows users to save text, images, and links from the Web pages they visit and access the notes later from any browser; Google Trends, which gives users a glimpse into Google’s historical database to see how the popularity of various search terms has varied over time; and Google Co-op, a social-search system that allows individuals or organizations to designate high-quality Web pages that will, in theory, improve the search results of anyone who chooses to “subscribe” to those recommendations.

All of the products were made available to users on Wednesday, except for Google Notebook, which will be launched next week. Google Gadgets will perhaps attract the most attention from Internet users; the mini-software programs, which can be placed on a computer desktop, can play music, show the latest news and weather, and display calendar appointments and the like.

But, as if to play down a flurry of announcements over the last year about other Google products, such as online mapping and calendar tools, executives speaking at the press event took pains to emphasize that Google is still a search company. They have “more people working on search than ever before in our company,” said CEO Eric Schmidt. “It is the focus of our business – and likely will be for the next 50 years.”

Despite growing competition from Yahoo and Microsoft, Google’s search index still contains three times as many documents as any other search engine, claimed Marissa Mayer, the company’s vice president for search products and user experience. She added that the company is continually improving its ranking algorithms, with the aim of making the “right” result appear at the top of every results list; that searches are faster, thanks to large investments in the company’s data centers around the world; and that the information presented in searches is becoming easier to navigate and use.

“You probably haven’t seen as many articles recently about Google’s speed and relevance as you have about Google Maps,” Mayer said. “But we’re going to continue to provide innovation and drive to make our search the best it can possibly be.”

The company itself has contributed to the purported imbalance in coverage. Google has rolled out new services and technologies in quick succession – Google News, Gmail, Google Toolbar, Google Desktop, Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Calendar, Google Talk, and the Google Video Store. So an observer might be forgiven for wondering whether engineers at the company had grown bored with serving up plain-old search results.

But executives countered this impression. “You reporters tend to focus on the outer reaches of the Google solar system, not the 70 percent,” said Jonathan Rosenberg, senior vice president for product management, referring to Google’s “70-20-10” rule: technical staff are encouraged to spend 70 percent of their time working on Google’s core business, 20 percent on related ideas, and 10 percent dreaming up blue-sky projects.

Alan Eustace, Google’s vice president of engineering, walked attendees through the treacherous problems involved in Web searching, including the ongoing proliferation of search spam – advertising sites designed to trick search engines into assigning them a high ranking – and the expansion of the Web itself. Some 10 to 20 percent of the material that Google’s web crawler finds every month wasn’t there a month before, Eustace said.

Engineers are continually tweaking Google’s algorithms to make the most relevant results appear first, Eustace said. The improvements are “typically small,” he said, “but we have big expectations…We’ve got one chance to make you very happy, and we’ve got billions and billions of chances to make you very unhappy. We want everyone to be able to click ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ every single time.”

But Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who took reporters’ questions at the end of the press event, couldn’t help talking about the company’s forays outside the search world. Asked to comment on the Google’s faceoff with Microsoft as it provides new browser-based alternatives to traditional desktop software, Page said that Google doesn’t focus directly on competing with the Redmond, WA, software giant, but that users could expect to see more such innovations in the future.

“We don’t think about it as, ‘How do we replace the thing people are using,’” said Page. ”We think about ‘How can we make things better.’ Over time we will do more of that.” Coming soon: Google’s reworking of Writely, an online word processor it acquired with its purchase of Silicon Valley startup Upstartle.

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