Google is known for two things: as a search and Web-enabled technology provider and as a powerhouse of research and development with a huge swatch of diverse interests. Google is a weird hybrid combination of huge corporate conglomerate and research university.
This approach, largely thanks to the influence of its founders, has made Google into one of the biggest companies in the world – a company that is respected both in business and in scientific circles. Where else can you have a company who’s the world leader in search engine marketing that is also a research leader in self-driving automobiles?
Recently, Alfred Spector, Peter Norvig, and Slav Petrov sat down and talked about Google’s “hybrid approach to research” in Communications of the ACM. Here, it was stated that:
“The goal of research at Google is to bring significant, practical benefits to our users, and to do so rapidly, within a few years at most. Research happens throughout Google, exploring technical innovations whose implementation is risky, and may well fail. Sometimes, research at Google operates in entirely new spaces, but most frequently, the goals are major advances in areas where the bar is already high, but there is still potential for new methods. In these cases, simply establishing the feasibility of a research idea may be a substantial task, but even greater effort is required to create a true success or useful negative result.”
This single paragraph explains why Google has been so successful in R&D and why it’s gained a reputation as a leader in both Web search marketing and scientific innovation. Basically, the company throws a lot of resources at a problem, puts some of the best minds in the world to work on it, and sets very fast time frames for delivery. Having some of the smartest people on the planet working for you alongside some of the most creative thinkers means you’ll find a lot of new avenues of research as well.
That, in a nutshell, is Google.
Google’s “Hybrid Research Model”
The way research is conducted normally is a multi-step process. First, someone comes up with the idea. Then the idea is tested in theory and then in the lab. If it passes those two steps, it is ready for publication, so the researcher writes up the theory and testing process into a paper and shops it to scientific journals for peer review and publication. Once published, investment usually arrives from commercial, governmental, or academic interests. Then real-world testing commences, more papers are written, patents are filed, and eventually a product may be created. This usually takes several years from start to finish.
At Google, they blur the lines between each of these steps. The initial theory will usually be presented and then tested. During testing, engineering starts and commercial applications are considered as the idea is vetted further. If publication happens, it’s often somewhere inside this part of the work as patents on it are filed. Commercial products often launch into beta during the real-world testing phase and commercialization happens as a matter of course. It’s all a sort of mish-mash of the usual steps since Google is both research university and commercial enterprise and is not afraid to throw resources at interesting problems.
This, when you boil it all down, is exactly why Google is on top and will remain so until a rival with similar vision arrives.