Google SA meets the media

Google this morning held their first ever local press briefing, from their new headquarters at Dimension Data’s Campus. They brought out a heavy-hitter from Mountain View, Vice President of Engineering Douglas Merrill, to talk about the Google mission here and on the continent. Both Merrill and country head Stafford Maisie spoke passionately about the role of mobile and search and what it means for this country.

It’s not the first Google event we have had here. There was one last year, at the same venue which was a networking session aimed perhaps at more of a tech crowd. This one appeared to be aimed mainly at the media, and a few bloggers — and seemed to be a bit more subdued than the previous one.

I bumped into quite a few people, including financial journalist and presenter Alec Hogg (Moneyweb and CNBC Africa) and the tech-set: the well-known posse of tech journalists in this country, including Toby Shapshak (The Times, Stuff), Duncan Mcleod (FM), Ben Kelly (Fin Week), Ivo Vegter (Maverick, ItWeb), Alistair Otter (Tectonic), and Lesley Stones (Business Day). There were a few marketing journalists there, including John Farquar and Marketing Mix’s Fulvia Becatti. It was also heartening to see a Googler who was immigrating — returning to South Africa from the London Google office, Graeme Lipschitz who I bumped into briefly.

Nothing earth-shattering was revealed at the briefing. But I didn’t really expect any big announcements. Merrill was quite guarded and batted off a few questions about when they will be launching new products here. This included my own question, which I thought was relatively tame, about when Adsense for mobile will be launching here? (It’s running in the States already, but he seemed unsure?)

Merrill repeated Google’s oft-stated quest to “democratise” the world’s information and make it “universally accessible”. He also spoke about Google’s user-centric approach even when it comes to advertising. This means that Google serve the ads “the users want to see”. It’s what makes adsense an appealing model to many and why it gets high click through rates. It’s useful advertising, because it’s relevant. Frankly, I think it’s online advertising 2.0.

Local Google boss Stafford Masie also spoke about his roots and how he rose from humble beginnings to be a Google country manager, of what must be considered a fairly strategic country in the search giant’s plans. Masie emphasised that “search is the oxygen of the modern era. You will be overwhelmed by information without search”.

Merrill also spoke about Google’s plans to do more, in more languages to appeal to a variety of cultures and break down barriers. For him, this multilingual approach is not about Google increasing its worldwide influence and making more dollars, it’s about a mission to create better understanding in the world: “How much better would the world be if others could see and understand other perspectives about each other?”

They both spoke about the mobile opportunity at length. It’s key to this country and Africa given the high penetration and useage rates here. Again, this means “making information more universally accessible”. Masie noted that here, “Google searches on the mobile device are quite astounding, considering the population in South Africa”.

Both Masie and Merrill referred to Sergey and Larry’s famous map showing search queries around the world, depicted as lights. Apart from a brightish outline which represents our country, there is not that much going on in Africa. Merrill quipped, looking at the dark patch which represents low search volume in Africa: “I’ve got a whole continent missing”. He says it’s Google’s mission to fix this and bring more lights aka search queries to Africa.

Masie says he sees South Africa as a “Google startup” and that it will be “bringing money into the country, not the other way round”. He sees the 2010 World Cup as key, saying that most travellers will be using Google to do their due diligence on the country and to decide where they are going to stay or go.

Masie pointed out that transactional traffic in South Africa is not where it should be. Online retail is performing poorly in this country, but that “Google wants to help that”. But the future is bright, says Masie, for several reasons: The new cables that are coming to South Africa mean more bandwidth; more and more people coming online with 3G cards and mobile phones; there are positive legislative moves in the wings that will benefit the industry; and lastly, there is the “pressuring force” of the 2010 World Cup.

Matthew Buckland: Publisher


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