Web leaders: Search is just the beginning

Search execs on a conference panel express intent to expand hosted apps, social networks and market share.
Written by Elinor Mills on
Google has a very broad mission, and it's getting broader all the time.

The company's Web site says: "Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

But people get only a small fraction of their information from Google today--a number the company wants to increase, said Sheryl Sandberg, Google's vice president of global online sales and operations, speaking on a panel at the Fortune iMeme conference in San Francisco on Thursday.

"If you ask a very heavy Google user...what is the percentage of information you received today from Google?" the answer will be only around 5 percent, she said. "We think there is a long way for us to go."

So Google is getting into the business of offering hosted software--things like Gmail, Docs & Spreadsheets, and Calendar--in order to help people create and organize information and communicate and collaborate online, she said. "These things fall into our broad mission" of providing access to information.

But Google is not turning into an enterprise software company, Sandberg asserted.

"We didn't want to sell expensive things with large teams of consultants to businesses," she said. "Yes, we provide products and services to enterprises. But we're not an enterprise software company like Oracle and Siebel (Systems). We are looking for places where people are not getting information we think they need."

Asked how Microsoft views Google's threat to its enterprise business, Yusuf Mehdi, senior vice president and chief advertising strategist at the software giant, said "We certainly look at all the competitive products." But he added that Microsoft Office has a "fairly popular position" in the enterprise market, with 500 million users.

"We're trying to figure out what else do those folks need; what are they missing?" he said. "Right now there is a lot of excitement about Web applications...we are kind of all headed in the same space. You're going to see our products more Web-enabled."

Microsoft is investing in providing software tools that make it easier for people to use the Web, such as a suite of applications like e-mail, instant messaging and search, as well as interactive TV and online gaming advertising, he said. He conceded that the company was coming from behind on search and online advertising, but boasted that the Windows Live image search and maps are better than rivals. "On the whole, we've closed the gap quite a bit," he added.

Meanwhile, Yahoo aims to offer a large repository of all kinds of online content and has been busy signing partnership deals with entertainment companies and newspapers to offer their copyrighted material, said Jeff Weiner, executive vice president and head of Yahoo's consumer business.

Yahoo needs to do more to jump on the social media front, he said. "We have tremendous potential and the question is how we tap it. Yahoo e-mail is...one of the largest dormant social networks in the universe, and it's our job to activate it."

Weiner also said he fully backs co-founder Jerry Yang in his new position as chief executive. Yang replaces Terry Semel, who stepped down last month after being criticized for failing to do enough in the face of slowing revenue growth and a sliding stock price.

"Yahoo as a network needs to become more open. Yahoo as a company needs to take on more of a platform approach. Jerry Yang is the ideal leader to make that happen," he said.

Jim Lanzone, the chief executive of Ask, was put on the defensive when the moderator said he tried to use Ask recently but then found himself habitually returning to his preferred search engine.

"The good news is that while it would be good to have you, the key to our growth is that we don't really need you," Lanzone said.

Ask's internal measure of user activity shows that the frequency of use and the percentage of return users have "spiked" since the company relaunched with a new user interface last month, he added.

During a question-and-answer session, the executives were asked how they justified operating in countries like China where they are asked to cooperate with censoring of the Internet.

"It was a hard decision for the company. We decided it was important to enter the Chinese market," said Sandberg. "We believe it was the right decision because we made a lot of information (available) that wasn't available before."

"Complying with the laws is a good thing for shareholders," said Mehdi. "Hopefully, (we can) change the world with those products by educating people."


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