The future of search is social: Q&A with Google’s Nelson Mattos

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Google’s vice president of engineering for the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region, Nelson Mattos, commands god-like respect among googlers. He is, after all, the man responsible for engineering and product development.

Mattos, the brain behind analytics products such as Google Trends and Google Instant, believes that Africa is in a unique position to change the way we experience the web via mobile devices. This is why Google is paying particular attention to the continent.

Mattos spoke to Memeburn about the future of search and why it lies with social. He says that Google+ is not simply a social network, but more of a platform that all other Google products can take advantage of, thanks to the social graph.

Google+, the future of search and open ecosystems

Memeburn: Google+ is the new darling of social networking. Can you give us an idea of how many users have signed up and how many are staying?

Nelson Mattos: As you’ve probably heard we are very thrilled with this success. It has come so far — as of the end of last quarter (mid October) we had over 40-million active users signed within Google+, which is fantastic for our product. Up until two weeks before that you could only join via invitation, so we have big hopes and we are quite excited about it. Many of the people are accessing the product on the desktop, but many are using it via their mobile device and particularly in emerging markets, a lot of them are mostly accessing it via feature phones.

MB: Google+ seems to be that place where you can bring all the different Google products together. What do you think the biggest mash-ups will be in terms of Google product integration with Google+?

NM: That’s a good point. So Google+ is, in our view, a lot more than a social network. The social network is important because that’s what is going to create the platform. It is what is going to create the social graph for us. But the big value is that all Google products are taking advantage of that social graph and contributing to the social aspects of that platform, with things like plus buttons that you can now take advantage of in search. That alone has had huge popularity — we are seeing more than one-billion clicks on plus buttons worldwide a day. This is significant because it means people are already starting to see the effects in that it actually influences search results.

So let’s say you have a good friend in your social network actually searching on Google and the results are something that some of your friends have already +1 … you will be able to see that in the search result, obviously assuming that the person has shared their information and allowed you to see what they’ve +1. But as you can imagine this is just the beginning. Being able to use that influence to bring social ranking into search creates a lot of value. Can you imagine the value it plays in local searches for restaurants, hotels and other things within Google maps (being able to take advantage of the social network graph for recommendations)? So for me, going back to the question about what is the most interesting aspect, I think it is exactly the leverage of that social graph.

MB: Do you think this will have a major impact on the page rank algorithm? When you look back five years from now, will you say +1 was one of the biggest changes to the page rank algorithm as search became more social?

NM: I don’t want to predict the future because who knows what will happen in five years time. Think about some of the big companies that exist today on the internet, they were totally non-existent five years ago. However, we do know that if you at trends on the internet, one of the big trends is around getting the internet to be more local and getting it to be more personalised. And if you take those two aspects into consideration, clearly the social aspect of ranking should be a big influence in search results.

For example, when looking for a restaurant the search engine knows I’m not from Cape Town and I don’t live here. But the search engine knows I happen to be here for the weekend and my friends have been to Cape Town and they enjoyed going to a particular restaurant … having that influence in search results that are relevant to me, rather than giving me general restaurants in Cape Town. So I would say the local and social aspects will play a big role in search but I don’t want to say that two years from now we’re going to discover something else.

MB: Google champions an open platform. As the volume of content grows and more people begin to add content, how will Google protect the quality of the content while keeping the platform open?

NM: Search is an excellent example of this debate and it’s an area which is researched constantly in Google, not only in terms of how do we ensure that as the volume grows the quality remains very high — that’s one challenge. The second challenge is that it’s not only an issue about volume but it’s the diversity of content, and the internet has changed dramatically. Just look at the content that you find in terms of viewing images today, compared to the volume of images we found on the internet five years ago.

To discover the relevance of, for example, an image, versus trying to find relevance in the text is quite different. And so we not only invest in the volume but also we invest in the diversity and how we can handle different types of documents. But we also invest in speed because, at the end of the day, the end result of searching is that people don’t care if there is more content over whether the diversity of the content has increased, they still want to see those search results in a fraction of a second. And that continues to be the three major areas of investment for us. And together they will actually improve the overall quality of the user experience.

A very good example of that: you probably saw the instant search across multiple countries throughout last year and that is showing that despite the volume of how the internet has grown exponentially, despite the diversity of content, we could get to the point where we’re delivering results that are high quality in real time. So there is a lot of hard work but so far the results are fantastic.

MB: How does that play into the Android market, for instance, because that’s also an open ecosystem?

NM: A lot of the techniques that you use for search are applicable in the Android market. If I’m looking for a specific type of content on the internet there are a number of Android apps that we have right now that makes it possible to find the relevant information for you. Finding this information requires a search engine, so the problems are not too different here. So the same technology and the same techniques that we use in search apply in the Android market as well.

MB: Why do you think that some people still opt for a closed ecosystem such as Apple’s app store?

NM: I don’t think that people opt for a closed environment, I think people opt for buying an iPhone and when they get it they don’t have a choice and have to live with it. But I think if you were to ask the iPhone user, “Do you want to become constrained with things that are only available in the app store?”, they would say no. They would love to be able to access other places as well.

MB: So you don’t think it’s because the app store is less cluttered and there is a guarantee of quality technology?

NM: I don’t think so. Think about the internet, there is nothing more uncontrolled than the internet, the websites and the content that is produced, and I think Google has proven that you can provide high quality results on searches over the internet. In the same way you do get high quality apps on Android. I feel very confident that you can find relevant applications for people who need them, no matter the platform. I don’t think it is a technology strategy, it’s more of a business strategy — whether you want to keep control over the ecosystem or not. And if you ask developers they will tell you that they would much rather develop apps solutions in an environment that is open but still in their control, rather than in an environment where somebody else is saying, “No I’m not going to put your application in my store”.

Startups and the future of entrepreneurship in emerging markets

MB: Google recently announced Umbono’s winning teams. Why did Google decide to do a project like this?

NM: Google has been focusing on emerging markets for quite some time and one of the areas that we are spending quite a lot of focus and time on is what I will call “how can we develop a system”. When you look at places where the internet is well-developed you have a lot of developers creating applications and services and websites. (When I talk about internet I also mean mobile). You also have professionals taking advantage, you have business users and business owners creating an online presence — they know how to do advertising etc. In many emerging markets this is either non-existent or quite weak, so Umbono is an attempt to create the systems on the entrepreneurship side; trying to create startups with potential to be successful and provide services within Africa.

So far we have two pilots — one is running here, the other one is in Egypt. The goals are the same, we have big hopes that this is going to be successful and obviously if it is we’d like to scale to other parts of the globe.

MB: How do you think that fostering startup development in Africa will help grow the tech-savvy culture to catch up with the rest of the world?

When you think about people graduating from computer science these days I would say they have three places to go in general. They’re going to join our enterprise within Africa, and otherwise it’s the Telco or financial systems. We are already doing new developments that mostly apply to software that has been developed somewhere else in the world. They are internal companies or they will mostly join other businesses, like the IBMs etc. of the world where again they are not necessarily developing new applications and software, but are mostly dealing with consulting and deployment.
The third possibility is for them to develop software on their own. That’s where we’ll get the creativity out of people’s brands, and with that obviously you need them to be entrepreneurs. There is very little opportunity inside Africa if you contrast it with the network that exists in Silicon Valley with forums where people can share ideas with investors in all different tech stages of investment. That’s what we’re trying to bring to Africa, to create that environment, and if there’s somebody graduating today who has some creative ideas and has the passion for ideas, they will have a network to support them.

MB: We’re particularly interested in emerging markets. We’ve got Umbono in South Africa and you’ve started something similar in Egypt. Are there any plans for Umbono-style projects in other emerging markets like Brazil, China, India?

NM: Not right now, not in a structured manner like those two. These are very well structured programmes that we’ve put together with, as you saw, a very solid set of partners starting from people who can help us with the local logistics, connectivity, space etc. But in particular for us it’s important to be working with the angel investors because for us to really develop the system, that’s what we need. Also the early investors and so on. So those two are very well structured.

Besides that, Google does have types of investments, small investments, and we run competitions and encourage entrepreneurship both on the development side, as well as competitions for business plans. But the whole strategy of Google in emerging markets is broader than that. As I mentioned early on we basically focus on three things which I truly believe are what is necessary to get the internet to be as important as it is in the developed world.

The first is eliminating access barriers that exist in Africa. Connectivity in Africa is 10, sometimes 100, times more expensive than in the developed world, so what is the incentive for somebody to use the internet if they are paying so much more? We need to address that and we have many programmes in that specific area as well, from things like working with operators to bring more affordable data in the countries, to providing free connectivity to universities and Google apps to run within those institutions.

The second is if you look at what exists in the internet, pretty much all of the popular services on the internet today were developed for the developed world — developed people sitting with larger desktops with broadband at high speed when in Africa if you’re lucky if the person has a feature phone that is mobile, that is web-enabled. So it’s basically taking our successful service products so that they can also run well on these devices and these folks can take advantage of that.

But also part of that is creation of local content. Most people that go online, sometimes they are looking for global things, but sometimes they are just looking for a specific thing that is only known within their country, and that content — local content — within Africa is key. So that’s what we need to encourage.

And the third is developing the ecosystem and that’s where we see projects in Egypt and South Africa, training developers, business owners and professionals with new technologies, and how to use the internet.

We will stay with Umbono and the project in Egypt to see if they’re successful. If not, we learn from it, tailor it, create a new programme, launch it again, until we find the right recipe to scale it. So far we have been very excited, we had hundreds of applicants, we have way more than what we expected. We have four folks with the contracts signed and there are a good number in the pipeline. In fact, I was having discussions with investors on how we were going to scale the large number of great ideas that we are seeing in Cape Town, but the jury is still out. Now it’s about getting investment and getting the environment to develop; they need a few months to be able to turn their ideas into something concrete.

*with contributing questions from Graeme Lipschitz

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