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Visions: Google VP says today's search technology will look primitive in 10 years

Editor's note: The quest to take the world's information and make it universally accessible has taken Udi Manber places, including from Madison to Google. Before his recent talk before Accelerate Madison, the man responsible for core search at the world's most recognizable search engine spoke to WTN about the future of this technology.

WTN: From Google's perspective, what's the next great advance in search technology, perhaps something that would surprise people?

Udi Manber
Manber: I would say I can't disclose any new things we have not announced yet, but we're making huge progress. Search is becoming easier and easier and you can discover more and more things, and we're improving search all the time.

We really understand search, and so we are working on all the different aspects of it, whether it's understanding more languages, understanding more concepts, understanding more users, and understanding better queries. One example is the universal search that we launched about six months ago, which is a way for us to bring all different media types into the main search results. There are many other examples like that, but the goal is to get people what they are looking for.

WTN: Is it possible to perpetually increase the level of sophistication of search tools and yet make improvements in their ease of use?
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Manber: That's exactly what we're doing. You said it very well. That's exactly our goal. We maintain the ease of use, and it's as easy to use as it's ever been, and we create the level of coverage and we increase the relevance. We find better results to match what you're looking for.

It's algorhythms. There are lots and lots of them, and they are getting very, very sophisticated.

WTN: Without revealing anything proprietary, what other directions to you expect search to take?

Manber: It's hard to say. I think it's more of the same. We'll have just more tools for people to find what they want.

WTN: If a laymen came to you and asked about the future of search, what would you tell them?

Manber: To me, search is about letting people find what they want. The future of search is to let them find more of what they want. What I find is that needs and expectations grow. That's true for every technology. When you have more of it, you want more of it. I don't think search is an exception, so 10 years from now people will ask much more complicated questions than they ask today, and we'll have to meet those demands. In that sense, it's just a matter of finding what people want, and finding more and more of it.

WTN: On the outside, Google might seem like a company that IT workers flock to. Does it really work that way, or do you have the same IT workforce challenges that others do?

Manber: It's true that many people want to work at Google. I believe we were voted the Number 1 company to work for by Fortune magazine, and there is a good reason for that. There are lots of very, very attractive reasons to work at Google. Some of them are well known, but the main one is that you're working with great people who make an impact. Engineers love to make an impact. They are working on things that they see launched, and that people use every day. To me, that's the best benefit, and that's done at Google possibly more than any other place. People here have the freedom to work on things that you may not be able to work on at other places, and it's just a lot of fun.

Yes, we have some of the challenges that other companies have, but I think we're meeting those challenges very well.

We're recruiting all over the world. We have offices all over the world. One of the reasons I'm coming to Madison is to help with recruiting. I'm going to meet with students and I hope they will find [working for Google] attractive.

WTN: Other than being a best company to work for and challenging your people, are there any other ways you try to recruit and retain?

Manber: There are many different programs within Google. For example, the 20 percent time that we offer engineers. We tell all engineers that they can use 20 percent of their time to do whatever they want, work on any project they want. That's a way for us to foster innovation that they may not get to do through the regular channels. That helps recruiting and it helps retention.

WTN: How do those ideas get channeled into new processes, products, or services?

Manber: What happens is a particular employee may have an idea. They may convince five of their friends to help them, and now you have six people working on it. I've seen that many times, where we'll have six people working 20 percent of their time, and then they present the prototype of the project to upper management.

It's kind of strange. When they ask how people work on it, the answer is 1.2 [full-time equivalency]. That means six people working 20 percent of the time, and it could be a very interesting project and they'll get it funded, and we'll put three or four more people on it, and that's how a project can start. [Note: Google News was actually created during a 20 percent project.]

WTN: There are a couple of schools about the future of technology jobs in the United States. Which camp are you in? (1) The better technology jobs are lost to outsourcing forever, so get out of IT while you can or (2) there is an ample number of attractive, high-paying career opportunities in computer science and software engineering, so join the hunt.

Manber: I'm definitely in the second camp, and it's all about innovation - whoever finds the better solution. The point is this is still early. There are so many more things to do. It looks very advanced if you compare it to 10 years ago. Ten years from now, today's technology will look primitive. I have been in this business for a long time. I see science fiction every five years. That's going to continue, and this is just accelerating.

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