01.07.11

Google's Mobile Matchmaker

Marissa Mayer, the executive behind Google's search engine, now aims to help the company conquer social media and personalize your Web experience on mobile phones. She talks to David Kirkpatrick about her war with Facebook.

Over breakfast, Google's Marissa Mayer isn't shy when laying the dazzling innovations her company is planning—or has launched—in mobile and local technology.

For 11 years, Mayer was in charge of Google's signature Web search product—and recently moved over to overseeing local products, a key growth area as the Internet's pervasive influence increasingly extends to wherever we are. In Google's lexicon, "local" includes its excellent maps as well as mobile search technology to help you understand what's around you on the go. Many of her group's projects also extend into the social arena, so she had interesting things to say about Facebook, too.

What most excites the always-enthusiastic Mayer is something called "contextual discovery," or "search without search" as she puts it. "We can take your location and your context and what you've been doing and we can just tell you interesting things," she says. Here's an example: "If you're standing in front of a cathedral in Spain, we know from the GPS in your phone where you are, even which way you're facing. If you've never been there before, you're probably a tourist. We can tell you interesting facts about it—when it was built and by who. Or, if you've been walking past it every day, we might show you the news." She emphasizes such features would only work with your explicit permission.

Mayer also explained how the Google Goggles application, which already works as part of the Google Mobile app on recent versions of the Apple iPhone and phones with Google's Android operating system, can work in conjunction with location to be more useful. She used the hypothetical example of bird identification—if Google knows where you are and the time of year, it can do a much more reliable job of identifying a bird you just photographed.

Another sort of contextual discovery Mayer's hundreds of developers are working on will take your location and give you "social" information. For example, at a restaurant you might see a marked-up version of a menu on your phone, based on experiences and recommendations of your friends and/or by people who go there regularly. With relish, she gave the example of La Bonne Soupe, a restaurant in Manhattan near where we were sitting. "I'm the mayor of La Bonne Soupe on Foursquare," she said proudly. "It's my go-to place in New York. I go there maybe 30 times a year. My friends and I have probably eaten everything on the menu at least once. So my input there is probably useful."

Being "mayor" on Foursquare means you are the person on that location-based social service who checks in there most often. Her mentioning it raised the key question of how Google will acquire social data to make such services useful. Facebook famously dominates social networking, and while Google has little access to information there, it also doesn't have much presence of its own in social online services.

"We ultimately know we need to get social right," she conceded. "If you think about the Web, there are four key platforms—search, video, mobile, and social. Google has done really well in three of those four. And we haven't gotten social right yet. But we do need the context of who your friends are and who you know. I think there are various ways we can work towards that."

“At a restaurant you might see a marked-up version of a menu on your phone, based on experiences.”

As for working with Facebook directly, an obvious possible avenue, Mayer deflected a question with a little lecture about openness and how Google supports an "open Web," whereas Facebook is "closed." Google recently turned off the ability of Facebook users to automatically import Gmail address books to Facebook, because Facebook doesn't allow Gmail users to import Facebook friend lists back out. "We think someone has to support the open Web," she said.

But she noted that various applications can help Google figure out who your friends are. For example, Google Latitude, an application that allows you to follow the physical location of close friends or relatives at all times on a map. It's been operational on Android and BlackBerries for a while, and just a week previously had launched on the iPhone. Once you tell Google who your friends are on Latitude, that same information might eventually be used for other services like socially marked-up menus, if you permitted it. The point is that Google may have more ways to acquire social information than just by building its own competing social network.

Google's maps are evolving quickly, Mayer explained, with a new version available only on Android and BlackBerry phones that loads more quickly and has features like rapid zooming in and can store maps on the phone if you regularly go to an area. The key improvement is something called "vector graphics." The iPhone won't get this any time soon because while Apple uses Google's map data, the application is written and controlled by Apple.

Mayer herself carries two phones—an iPhone 4 and the Nexus S—a new device whose hardware as well as software is designed by Google, made by Samsung, and sold in the U.S. just for the T-Mobile network.

Some experts in Mayer's group are working on applications that enable you to talk into your phone and have it translated into text that appears on the screen, or even push a button and have it read aloud in another language. A prototype of such a service in Japanese was used for an employee treasure hunt in Tokyo this year.

Such mind-boggling innovations will be commercial shortly. They are the fruits of a set of parallel but separate innovations in computer science that Google is quickly putting to work. "If translation weren't as good we wouldn't be able to do it," says Mayer. "Or if text-to-speech or speech-to-text weren't as good, we couldn't do it. The next big breakthroughs will come in image recognition, like with the bird example, or facial recognition."

The first time I ever interviewed Mayer, back in 2005, she talked about the potential of Google's software for local discovery. In the meantime, she spent many years maintaining the elegant simplicity of Google's search page. I hope that experience will lead to similarly elegant implementations of these new and upcoming products. They may change how we get things done as we move through the world.

David Kirkpatrick writes about technology for the Daily Beast. A former Fortune reporter, he is the author of The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World.