Google on Innovation, the video

Here’s the best thing you can do with the next 51 minutes of your life. The video below is Google CIO Douglas Merrill on Innovation at Google. If you are thinking about search, as I am, the beginning provides some nice food for thought. If you’re interested in business strategy and innovation, as I am, the entire video is worthwhile.

And if you’re not interested in these things, you should be — just about every person who reads this blog is involved in the online news game at some level, and we all have a responsibility to care about business strategy and innovation, whether you’re a first-year reporter, a classified ad rep, or a top executive.

There is lots of goodness here. Here’s a couple of things I noted:

Merrill on the need for fast loading pages: “We can loose 15 percent of our traffic just by slowing down 200 milliseconds. … We’ve done a lot of work to answer any question in the world in 400 milliseconds”

Put that in your usability pipe and smoke it. Maybe you’ll figure out how to kill about 1,000 links on your home page.

The big issue of search: Deliver the right results. It’s not enough just to have a big database. If the results don’t match exactly what the user wants and they’re not delivered in the way the user wants, you’ve failed. “Search is still not solved.”

Merrill then went on at some length about transformational innovation and incremental innovation. My thought is newspapers have been caught up in trying to push transformational innovation ever sense Innovator’s Dilemma came out, and that’s what the API’s Newspaper Next project was all about, but incremental innovation is important, too, and we don’t spend enough time thinking and talking about that.

On the other hand, things like getting more news online faster, which has proven to be a big traffic driver for many sites in the past couple of years, is really just an incremental innovation.

“Innovation based on what users need is likely to create economic value, so whatever you do, start innovating with the user. And obviously what you should do is ask users what they want, right Mr. Ford? Yeah, right. Won’t work. ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.'”

“Users don’t know what they want, but they might know what problems they have.”

Merrill then goes into a lengthy discussion of news and what users want … it’s not all happy news for traditional media companies, but this section of the talk did remind me of something I did at the Ventura County Star that transformed the way I look at local news sites, and I followed an approach, I think Merrill would appreciate.

In my mind, based on the Merrill model, I listened to the users. I looked at about two years of user stats and noticed something interesting. When we had a big local story, such as a flood or a fire, where we put breaking news on the site and followed the story closely and solicited user content, we had huge spikes in visitors. That’s no big surprise, necessarily, but what was most interesting, was that when there was a big national or international story, even when we covered it with great gusto, such as the invasion of Iraq, our site traffic took a dive.

That told me, our local news site wasn’t a brand to users for nation/world coverage. For nation and world, they thought of the CNNs and the NYTs first, and us hardly at all.

From that I learned, regular updates of local news is what our users want. It’s something I still believe today, especially since so many local sites are now finding success with that model.

Merrill used the example of an earthquake in California. When it happened, Google graphed a quick spike in traffic — people googling “earthquakes,” and the site they were hitting was the first link, the link to the USGS site (highlight for those who don’t quite get the import of this result — it wasn’t a traditional news site).

Merrill: “Why is this interesting? This is interesting because fundamentally the news sites are in this spike, too. The news sites don’t have data yet. They’re still trying to figure out. They’re scrambling reporters, trying to understand what’s going on, whereas a lot of the people those news sites want to reach, people who care about what just happened, already know. So the democratization of information is in some sense working against traditional news creation, because a lot of the people you want to talk to about news know the answer already. The people you are talking to are the people who weren’t that interested in the first place.”

You might need to re-read that statement. It’s fundamental to understanding how the news game has changed — our best customers often know more than we do before we even get a chance to tell them what we know.

Merrill: “If you’re a content creator, that graph makes you think hard about ‘what is my value in this ecosystem?'”

The last 10 minutes should be required for any executive looking to create a culture of innovation. It should make a few executives in our industry squirm a bit. The news industry hasn’t done a great job of allowing people to make mistakes or hiring for diverse ideas. A lot of people lament our industry’s ability to “innovate,” but it isn’t necessarily the lack of big innovations that has hurt the most (there is no reason to believe that we really needed to create Google, or MySpace, or YouTube first) — we haven’t been willing to fail fast and innovate incrementally. If we had, we would be much further along today.

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