Google plans to embed social in everything it does – ads chief

24 Jun 2011

As opposed to having a separate social media strategy, Google intends to embed social networking in everything it will do going forward, Google VP of global advertising operations John Herlihy tells editor JOHN KENNEDY.

Google employs some 2,000 people in Dublin – well in excess of the 200 or so positions it originally envisaged when it came to Ireland seven years ago. For John Herlihy, one of the company’s senior-most executives who heads up its global advertising business and runs the Irish operations, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s coming.

The Google innovation engine is firing on all cylinders and as he sees it is showing no signs of slowing down. “Why? Well, we’re in the business of taking big bets,” he says with absolute conviction.

It’s the speed of one of those big bets that still amazes me. Android. A few years ago, Google envisaged putting it on three devices. The following year it was eight devices. Today, the operating system sits on more than 300 smartphones, has overtaken the iOS platform and is a US$1bn a year business to Google already.

“I’ve talked with you in the past how we are an innovation factory. In many ways, what we are trying to do is continually create new ideas. Then we take big bets. That’s a big thing with Google,” Herlihy explains.

“Larry Page and Sergey Brin from day one, even if you go back to the founders letter, they talked about how we’re going to invest in things that are at times unusual but we believe are the right things to do. We’re always going to invest in things we believe provide the best long-term benefit even if at the time people believe they’re not quite sure how we’re doing it.”

The Google innovation model: taking big bets

There are a number of big bets that Google is concerned with right now. There’s Android, there’s open computing, there’s Chrome and there’s social media. Herlihy makes a convincing argument for each.

“A number of years ago we took a bet on Android and it has turned out to be absolutely brilliant. If you look at it today, inside the business its a billion-plus dollars in terms of a run-rate business. There are in excess of 300 Android devices out there and more than 400,000 new activations per day.

“This thing’s on fire and that’s something that a couple of years ago people said we were mad to try and do. It goes back to the Google model of thoughtful risk taking, let’s go for this.

“In 2006, we bought YouTube for video and if you look today every time there’s new statistics on how much video is going up on the web. There are 35 hours a minute of video going up on YouTube. It’s the new MTV. If you look at that and almost 2bn views daily in terms of monetisable views. That’s a big healthy business.

“Our display business, which we took a really big bet on, is now US$2.5bn a year in terms of run-rate.

“We acquired Doubleclick to fill in our product offering and now 99pc of large advertisers are basically running campaigns on the Google display network. Of those, they are spending 75pc more today than they were a year ago. It’s a big business and coming back to big bets – that’s why we innovate.”

He adds that the Chrome browser – another big bet – now has 18pc share of the browser market, equalling some 160m people.

Open standards at Google

Herlihy explains that most innovations at Google go back to what can the company give back to society as a whole. Open standards, he urges, are key. “If you look at Chrome, we architected that in an open fashion so that other developers can use it and we are refreshing it and sending out a new version of Chrome every six weeks.

“The reason is because open enables people to do really interesting things. Consumers get the benefit because they’re not locked into anything and you get a really competitive business environment. Open was one of those big bets for us.

“That’s why people wonder why we’re all about innovation. Innovation helps us to identify what are the big bets, what are the things that are really going to help our user, our advertiser, our publisher. Because if we can do something that adds value to all of them, we think it’s going to help us as a business.”

Google recently unveiled its Plus 1 button for social sharing. Many critics have argued that the company dragged its feet in terms of social sharing, especially with the obvious rise and rise of Facebook and Twitter.

Herlihy doesn’t see it that way. He sees social as another one of those inevitable big bets and the way he describes it, it could be one of its biggest bets yet. Time may prove this. The company’s Plus 1 button is beginning to manifest across prominent websites in the US and another venture, One Pass, could play a transformative role in how people buy digital goods, such as newspapers, magazines and other content.

“The internet has pretty much reinvigorated, turned upside down or has helped media to re-imagine itself. Those that are up to the challenge are re-imagining themselves all the time. They’re just innovating. I think great media and those producing great content online are just innovating at the same pace as Google and are doing tremendously well.

“On the question of social, we’re going to have social embedded in everything we do as opposed to having a separate social strategy. Look at Plus 1, it’s for people who trust you and your recommendations. People are making determinations on things because you’re in their circle. This concept of Plus 1 is working really well.

“The thing we want to do is embed social in everything we do and you’re going to see a lot of interesting stuff in that whole area coming very soon,” Herlihy promises.

Photo: Google VP of global advertising operations John Herlihy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years