Monday, December 3, 2012

The Genius of Google

December 3, 2012

One of the advantages of being a behemoth like Google is that every business decision one takes can be easily shrugged off as brand-building and marketing without being scrutinized for further motives. Take for example its latest free mobile application—'Ingress'. Packaged as an alternate reality game, players are required to go outside into the real world to accomplish tasks. 'Ingress', however, is merely the latest step in a series that helped Google build its empire. As far-fetched as it may sound, the game is being used to take on Nokia's recently announced turn-by-turn navigation for pedestrians.

The game's storyline and rules are plucked straight from the realm of science fiction, where players collect virtual energy at different locations with their smartphones and then spend that at other places ( known as portals) to unlock various missions. Portals apparently will be easily accessible public places; think museums, libraries, famous cafes and other such tourist locations. The drive to play the game is introduced when users are divided into two factions which are battling to decide how best to use this energy.

Advertising comes in when 'Ingress' incorporates real-world stores and products into the game—indeed, Google has already tied up with numerous restaurant chains to deliver on this. But the amount of effort put into this application doesn't gel with the resultant pay-off.

It isn't too big of a stretch when one considers Google's past endeavors. Remember their free automated directory enquiries service that everyone wondered about? ("Why would they do this? Where's the business model?"). 'GOOG-411' was effectively used to build a vast sample of spoken word queries in a number of accents that Google used to train voice-recognition systems, which eventually resulted in Google Voice and Android's state-of-the-art voice search.

Or what about ReCAPTCHA, where the company's free CAPTCHA service helped them automatically resolve edge-cases and unrecognized words which came in handy when production-line digitizing books for Google books?

Note here, how 'Ingress' is specifically geared towards: "Users can generate virtual energy needed to play the game by travelling walking paths. Outdoor physical activity is a big component of this; though driving between locations isn't banned." The game gets players to walk around while carrying a GPS-enabled mobile device with a camera and a mobile data connection built into it.

The idea here is that users walk around footpaths and pedestrian routes that Google Maps, at present, doesn't cover well! The game client, all this time, would be able to report back on the players' position and speed so that Google gets to build a massive database of popular pedestrian areas and routes. Leaving the game's plot aside, the point of this is to cheaply build an unrivaled sample of pedestrian-accessible routes that will be used to take on Nokia and power a 'foot-enabled Google Maps'.

Throw in the fact that taking geo-tagged photos while walking is a mission objective and 'Ingress' borders on genius. Google's reputation as a company stems from their ability to manipulate vast datasets. What they also excel at is finding creative and mutually-beneficial ways to convince large numbers of people to voluntarily build those datasets for them.

And this point is an important lesson to many Indian companies that profit off their consumer's data and information. Google's model works, in a large part, because they freely offer services people want to use, while getting something out of it. Data mining by Indian retailers, which borders on illegality and causes privacy issues, to improve their services is a classic example of how not to do it.

Retailers such as Pantaloons or Trent tie-up with loyalty programmes such as 'Payback' that, after data mining their customers, provide a "personalised solutions" which often results in spam, rather than targeted advertising.

The sophistication of American retailers, the example of Target knowing its customer was pregnant before she did, is missing here and so is the mutually-beneficial relationship that makes Google so popular. Receiving junk e-mail after signing up to a company's 'raffle' is almost the norm, making the customer doubt whether their information is being sold the highest bidder.

After all, there's no reason that domestic tech companies can't replicate Google's model. Indians perhaps represent the biggest dataset one could tap into. The way company's look at the business-customer relationship is the only thing holding it back.
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