Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

A Visit to the Googleplex: Google Updates Search And Intros Google Health

Posted by Tom Foremski - May 19, 2008

Monday morning I was down in Mountain View at the Googleplex, GOOG's HQ for a briefing on new search initiatives and to find out about Google Health - a potentially wonderful and problematic service.

[For the first time, I was using Twitter to "live blog" from the event. Twitter is particularly well suited to such an activity, plus my "Twits" served as a decent note taking device for this post. I'm tomforemski on Twitter if you'd like to follow me.]

A planet sized wiki...

On search there was a lot said about local search and how difficult it is to do because place names are not standardized and some facilities share the same address and phone number. GOOG is very excited by image search because there are about 100 billion photos taken every year and Google loves new content (after all why go back to the Internet if there is nothing new?)

Google is trying to create a 3-D virtual earth. Its satellite and street level imagery are lacking. What it wants is a 3D rendition such as the one for San Francisco, which is very impressive. But I think that Google will have trouble getting users to continue to create that 3-D content because the novelty will subside so it'll have to think up some games and incentives.

Google likes images and the geo-tags that can go with them, but again, this relies on the continuing goodwill of users to upload and tag images, etc.

What this adds up to is a wiki-earth that users create using Google tools, or other tools, and also annotate and tag the locations. It would be a massive project and on top of that it would require fresh content - good luck with that. I just don't see legions of users willing to update Goog's database time and again, and again. Businesses will-- but that's advertising and that doesn't require payments to Google, (there could be a shot in the foot here ...).

Google Health very important...

Google Health is interesting and I would say it is Google's most important business launch since its AdSense/AdWords text-link ads. Not only is this a great way to integrate health data from multiple sources by having the individual do it but it also enables Google to access billions of dollars in pharma and medical services marketing.

Government regulations on health data make it very difficult for medical practitioners to pull an individual's data from many sources. But a Google Health user can consolidate their medical records in a highly secure Google database then authorize sharing that data with their doctor or other third party, and even allow that data to cross-borders. How about MyIndianMD.com...? (Hold on one second while I visit GoDaddy...)

Google Health could reduce health care costs because tests won't have to be repeated, and individuals could choose not to have expensive procedures just because their doctors are trying to cover their legal liabilities.

The problems with this approach is that the individual is being asked to make choices which their doctors would be best at making but because of legal and other issues, they cannot. Similarly, Google has to be careful not be providing medical advice. It gets around that - it provides users with "choices and options."

I spoke with Martin Harris, M.D and Chief Information Officer at Cleveland Clinic, one of the beta test partners for Google Health. He said that one problem was that computer literate users would be the first to benefit. "It's part of what I call the Internet divide," he said. "Ideally we should be able to let people access their Google Health accounts through their TV set top box or through the phone. That will come soon."

I spoke with a couple of people on the Google Health team and they said users would in the future be able to designate "delegates" to administer their Google Health records on their behalf so that the elderly could have their families help them.

Building businesses on top of Google Health . . .

There is also a great opportunity for a range of third party services to be built on top of Google Health and it's open API. Google for example, is offering an application that allows people to monitor how much they walk and will give $100k to charity.

I can think of linking gym machines to my Google Health record, what I ate that day, even what I ate at a restaurant automatically uploaded with calories and vitamin info. How much I slept, etc. This could become many people's home page.

There are some obvious potential problems if insurance companies or employers seek permission to view health records. What about potential spouses opening their hearts . . . and their medical records to each other?

How to monetize search, Google Health . . .

Nothing was said about how Google would make money from the improved search or from Google Health.

I asked about Google's search and if it improves then fewer pages are served. . . and therefore the performance of Google ads has to improve just as fast as search improves.

I was told that the advertising teams are ahead of search, and with better search there will be more search, therefore more pages will be served. I don't see that as being true.

It would have been good to have a presentation about the business side of Google's search and Google Health.

Here is further discussion of the business opportunities: The Google Health Problem...And The Quest For Pharma Gold

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Notes: Google did a nice job pulling together top media and allowing good access to its executives and also to Google Health partners. Its PR people didn't get in the way but facilitated interviews etc. This meant that journalists could each have a chance in coming away with original quotes and material that wasn't part of the general presentation. I always appreciate the opportunity to come away with some unique content.

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