Googler 13

Monday, September 10, 2012

Lest we not forget extraordinary times and the decisions we make. Life is a symphony. None of us do it alone.

From my friend Doug Edwards book: I'm Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59- regarding September 11 2001:
"We were soon flooded with email from well-meaning users who wanted Google to help them help others. Most of the mail was about the ad hoc news directory we had created. Requests to be added to the list of links increased with each update we pushed out. A webmaster had a site where people could post messages letting others know they were safe. A Wiccan wanted a pointer to her "online healing book." An old friend at wanted a link to their coverage. A British user suggested we add sources outside the United States. I explained to all of them that our mission was not "to replace news services online, but to help people get info they can't get otherwise." Still, the cascade of incoming links became a cataract, roaring in concert with the rush of the news from New York and the Pentagon and Pennsylvania.
I agreed about the value of adding a global perspective, so I asked Googlers what sites they used abroad. They sent back sources in German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Romanian, Polish, Spanish, Basque, Ukrainian, Japanese, and Russian. I dutifully checked them all. Unfortunately, I couldn't read any of them, so I had no way to evaluate whether they were espousing extremism in their bold headlines or had bias buried in the tiny type below. I tried to get confirmation from at least two Googlers before passing the sites along to Karen to post. The engineering team sent me a list of the top news sites they were seeing in the search logs—an indication of what sources people around the world were trying to find. If I couldn't get validation from staff, I took search popularity as a vote for legitimacy.
As the changes rolled out throughout the day, user reaction was all over the map. Some praised us for the useful information. Others complained about the wording that directed people to their TVs. Some sniffed that it wasn't our role to act as a news provider. Some warned us that our uncluttered interface had drawn them to us in the first place and threatened to leave if we didn't clean up the homepage and lose the links.
I wondered at the parochialism of these people. Didn't they understand that something extraordinary had occurred, requiring extraordinary measures on our part? To be fair, if Sergey hadn't taken a hammer to the image of a polished and perfect brand I had carried with me to Google, I might have been confused as well. We were a corporation, a legal entity providing a product solely to earn a profit—yet here we were, acting like a well-meaning bystander attempting CPR at a car wreck. Should we maintain professional detachment instead of throwing up hurried HTML that made our homepage a mess?
And then there were those who thought we weren't doing enough. A German user suggested we paint our logo black. Steve Schimmel in our business development group argued that our response lacked a "human side"—that we should put a "message of sorrow" on the homepage. Cindy and I disagreed with both of them. It didn't feel appropriate to jump in so quickly with a condolence message, while news was still pouring out. Would we look insincere? Awkward? Or worse, would we seem to be capitalizing on a national tragedy? I didn't want to make any rash decisions we might later view as ill-conceived. Already I saw disturbing opportunism cropping up around us. One news organization asked to be moved higher on our list while others demanded to know why their competitors appeared and they didn't. The jostling and jockeying for position intensified by the hour.
I shared with Steve my belief that expressing personal grief through our website logo or a homepage message would trivialize an overwhelming tragedy. The wound was too raw for us to give voice to the pain we all felt. What I didn't tell him was that I felt it would be self-aggrandizing, as if Google were saying, "Look at us. Look how important we are. On this day of despair, we're making a statement on our homepage. Isn't that special?"
As usual, Sergey was there to help with my dilemma. "I'd like to put a mourning message on the site," he said. "Offering condolences and a link to more information." Okay then. I drafted the wording and sent it to him, along with my reservations about his timing. He brushed off my concerns and directed me to put up a link the next day, pointing to our expression of sorrow and support."

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