VP of engineering Adam Bosworth last year wrote that Google's success in making a more relevant search was based on "leveraging the wisdom of crowds," referring to the company's PageRank algorithm. (James Surowiecki's book, The Wisdom Of The Crowds, was published in 2004 by Random House.) Company founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin built the business on PageRank, which analyzes the human-generated link structure of the Web to determine the relative importance of a Web page. As PageRank sees it, the more people link to a given page, the more important that page is likely to be.
This turns out to be the perfect division of labor between man and machine: Evaluating content is easy for people, and analyzing large data sets is easy for computers. By marrying collective intelligence with automation, Page and Brin built a company fueled by artificial intelligence. "AI is a great tool for helping people make better decisions," Merrill says. "It's not so good at making complex decisions."
The wisdom of the crowd, farmed and refined by machine, remains critical to Google. As Merrill puts it, "All of us together are smarter than any of us individually." That insight may not be as surprising now that it has been reinforced by the likes of Wikipedia and Digg.com, but it's still mostly lip service at many other companies.
At Google, however, examples abound, such as the way the company decides on new employees. "No one can hire anyone here," Merrill insists. "Hiring decisions are made by public groups. We all hire everyone."
That faith in group intelligence manifests itself in the lunch line. Google provides free meals to employees partly as a perk and to enhance productivity, but also to encourage interaction. It's about the pollination of ideas over salads and sandwiches. "If you want people to talk, if you want people to engage, how do you do that?" Merrill asks. "You give them lunch."
Google has an expression to describe this open discourse: Live out loud. "Everything that's done privately is done publicly here," he says. (As if to make the point, Merrill took off his T-shirt during our photo shoot, showing off his tattoos.) "We make decisions in public. We expect people to debate. You're supposed to engage. You're supposed to disagree."
Normal businesses? That would be 99% of other companies. The challenge for Google is to remain different--which is part of its competitive advantage--while staying true to its mission to organize the world's information and make it universally, rather than selectively, accessible and useful. Because you can be sure that other companies are watching and learning from Google's every move.
-- with Aaron Ricadela and Charles Babcock
Google's Brew Of Open Source And Custom Code,
Google Goes Its Own Way In The Data Center
and Profile: Google Technologist Knows Problem Solving Firsthand