Google Blogoscoped

Monday, September 3, 2007

How Marissa Mayer Almost Killed AdSense (Kind Of), and More

Iionnovate put up an audio interview with Google’s Marissa Mayer. During the talk, Marissa names social networks as one of the biggest hot areas in technology today. She also mentions Orkut when asked about some of her favorite networks or network companies:

I was part of Orkut here at Google as it launched, so I was one of the people who helped to get it started. So while it’s not very popular in the US, it is the second-largest network in the world. Second only to MySpace, and it’s number #1 in Brazil in India. So here it doesn’t feel very big, but I just came back from India about a month ago, and there Orkut is the #1 website in the country, and people think Orkut owns Google, not the other way round.

Marissa also mentions how, with ex-Googler Paul Buchheit – the guy who came up with “don’t be evil” – she brainstormed ideas for an email client back before Gmail launched. Marissa says as product manager of Gmail, she argued that Gmail should just be released as a free basic product, but that you could upgrade for a price, like other email clients at the time did it. Paul on the other hand suggested to make it all free but with ads. Marrissa, calling this an embarassing error in retrospect, argued that this wasn’t such a good idea because either the ads were untargeted, and thus make people develop blind spots (which are disastrous for click-throughs), or the ads could be targeted, which might be “creepy and weird” (indeed, many people were worried about the whole “Google reading your emails” thing when Gmail launched).

Well, despite Marissa’s repeated stance on this, Paul went ahead and, during one night – utilizing an open source semantic analysis library found on the web, and hooking it up with Google’s existing AdWords database search system (update: see Paul’s version below, as opposed to Marissa he says he didn’t use this library) – he coded something that would put targeted ads into Gmail. Note this was before Google had AdSense. Marissa was in for a surprise the next morning checking the prototype, and immediately wanted the ads to be taken out... but also wanted to be patient to wait for Paul to arrive at the office, as he just went home to sleep after pulling the all-nighter.

As things go, during this time as Marissa was waiting for Paul to arrive, she also used Gmail and received some mails... and she began to realize the ads could actually be very useful. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, two of the other few users of the (then still buggy) Gmail prototype, agreed with her. And the rest is history, of course: this thing turned into Gmail with ads, and it also spawned the now billion-dollar business that is AdSense... a product which, as it turns out, was originally extracted from the Gmail prototype, despite AdSense having publicly launched before Gmail.

[Thanks Stefan2904!]

Update: I asked Paul Buchheit for some clarifications on the issue, as some of us were getting interested in the development time line of Gmail and AdSense. Paul tells me that he started working on Gmail in late 2001, though it was just him in the beginning and he was still wrapping up his work on Google Groups. Later that year, Sanjeev Singh and Jing Lim were added to the team. Paul says he then added content targeting ads to the prototype around the first half of 2002 (Paul isn’t precisely sure about the month, but says it might have been March or April).

At the time, there were “probably about 100” users to Gmail within Google, Paul clarifies. What’s interesting is that Paul says content targeting had been previously discussed and “dismissed as unworkable”.

Also, as Paul says, he actually did not use any semantic analyzer library found on the web, as opposed to what Marissa stated in the interview. “[I]t was all my code,” Paul writes. After his prototype, a team was assembled, which Paul recalls was led by Shiva Shivakumar on engineering and Susan as PM (I suppose that’s Susan Wojcicki, Paul didn’t mention her last name), though Paul is not exactly sure anymore on this. Paul says, “The content targeting (’adsense’) team moved remarkably fast – although the product wasn’t officially announced until 2003, I believe that they actually had it running on a number of sites in the later half of 2002.”

On another note, Marissa’s version also adds an interesting detail to the time line of the Gmail privacy issue. According to David Vise in his book The Google Story (page 154):

It made sense to Larry and Sergey to profit from Gmail by putting the same type of small ads on the right-hand side of Gmails that Google put on the right-hand side of search results. (...)

Looking at the world through Google-colored lenses, this seemed like a superb idea in every respect. It didn’t occur to Larry, Sergey, or any of the other engineers in senior roles at Google that serious people they respected would strenuously object to the privacy implications of having Google’s computers reading emails and then placing ads in them based on the content of those messages. In their virtual reality, they remained oblivious to the political reality that awaited them.

Marissa’s statement in the interview seem to oppose this: not only did Marissa, no less but Gmail product manager, realize there may be privacy issues with content targeting... but she almost killed the ads in Gmail because of those issues, which she thought of as “creepy and weird” at the time.

Other statements made in The Google Story are conflicting with Marissa’s, and Paul’s versions. Says Wayne Rosing, then Google’s vice president of engineer, on page 155: “Gmail grew out of experiments that were done that involved our ad targeting.” So according to Wayne, Gmail was a spin-off from AdSense, and not AdSense a spin-off from Gmail, as Marissa and Paul say. Perhaps Wayne got it wrong by looking at the official release time line only – Paul and Marissa were certainly closer to the Gmail project.


Blog  |  Forum     more >> Archive | Feed | Google's blogs | About


This site unofficially covers Google™ and more with some rights reserved. Join our forum!