Sunday, 4 November 2012

Google inside out: 'I'm feeling Lucky' review

Time for a book review. I really enjoyed 'I'm feeling lucky: the confessions of Google employee number 59' by Douglas Edwards.

It's a fascinating insight into the world of Google from a Marketeer, from the team culture to testing, to efficiency measures, to the actual workings of the search giant. To be honest, Edwards paints it as a terrifying experience, with little trust in Marketing or PR skills, and some seriously overbearing management.

It's worth bearing in mind that this is based on the early days of Google, with less than 60 people operating in its Silicon Valley centre. I have no idea if this is reflective on life at Google now, and I'd imagine that  things are a lot more structured given the size and scale of the company worldwide. But really, how scary is this:
"Google hires really bright, insecure people and then applies sufficient pressure that no matter how hard they work, they're never able to consider themselves successful." 

As Edwards puts it, the start up worked its employees hard. It wasn't about trying to please the boss so much about staying on top of your workload. The recruitment of bright young things without family ties also made it easy to keep Googlers late into the night by providing high standard catering, saunas, masseurs, entertainment, sport and more. It doesn't sound so bad, if you take those benefits into account, right?

As a Marketeer, it was really interesting to read about the low cost implementation of Marketing and PR in those early days. "Efficiency, Frugality, Integrity", he writes, were the cornerstones of the Google approach. That cautiousness to spend on Marketing is something a lot of small businesses can relate to. It is even easier today, with the wide availability of white-label web options and free tools, to take this low cost approach to building a cheap yet effective marketing/PR machine for a brand, and to test how well that is working. For example for the creation of banners for contra-advertising on partner sites, instead of traditional market testing with its (often) large costs, they would test by creating one hundred banners, putting them out, and seeing which ones got the most click-throughs, then replacing those not performing.

Their approach was to favour word of mouth and free opportunities over paid. Mass media advertising was shunned. Everything should be measurable. Something tells me that times have moved on though, as advertising is now a regular occurrence, at least in London I have seen Google adverts on the tube for some time now. I'm also a big fan of their video campaigns, such as this one featuring Cambridge-based Julie Dean who launched the Cambridge Satchel Company 'from her kitchen table'. Why is this a great campaign warrants a blog post of its own, but, in brief, it takes human interest, story telling and brand values to dizzy heights. It's great.

On the other side of the coin, he also talks about the lack of trust in what Marketing could offer:
"Sergey had begun doubting the wisdom of hiring marketing staff, since apparently we couldn't actually do anything for ourselves." 
How is it everyone knows how to do Marketing and PR? It's one of those areas everyone has an opinion on, even the tech guys know better, according to Edwards. The copy and design on banner ads for example, or the wording in a press release, all were subject to input from all departments. Crazy. I hear designers spout similar outrage, so it isn't just my profession that suffers this. More ranting on expertise for another time though...

There are some really excellent brand development insights in the book, and given that Google was in 2011 at the top of the Brand Directory's '500 top ranked brands' listing, it is a significantly important and successful brand. As Edwards writes, "a brand is the sum of all the "touch points" you have with a product or service - your interactions, your impressions, your expectations, your unplanned casual encounters." He outlines so well the trials of brand management - how do you keep that engagement across all encounters consistent?

Edwards talks about the birth of the Google Doodle, and his initial scepticism. And of the challenges of making the Doodle an internationally representative one: the Thanksgiving turkey really doesn't resonate outside the US for example. This is without a doubt one of the most recognisable features of the brand now, so demonstrates that consistency doesn't just mean what you think it does: creativity counts too.

He also talks about how they developed the personality of the brand. As Google's "word guy", he could direct the experience users had in a very direct way, by being the voice of Google on its platform. He talks about the implementation of his own voice, including cult references such as the Simpsons in error messages, and making important messages, such as the user licensing agreement, stand out with less formal copy ("It's not the usual yada yada"). Tone of voice is a really big part of the Google brand, as it is with others too, but something that really stands out in Edward's commentary as a key way Marketing and PR supported the growth and fondness of the company.

At times, there's a sense of bitterness in his tone, but this is a very enjoyable, entertaining, and seemingly honest read. There are many great lessons in the mix. He covers many of the trials Google faced, on growth, competition, privacy, and more. It's a very open (at least on the surface) look at workplace politics. One of my favourite notes of advice: "to always make the boss's idea a priority, even if it's patently unreasonable."