How do you parse a tweet? Ten years ago, that question would have been gibberish. Today, it’s perfectly sensible , and it’s at the front of Sundar Pichai’s mind. pichai is leading Google’s quest to incorporate new data into search results in real time by tracking and ranking updates to online content—particularly the thousands of messages that course through social networks every second.
Pichai, whose full name is actually Pichai Sundararajan, grew up in Chennai, India. His father was as an electrical engineer and his mother a stenographer before having him and his younger brother. The family wasn’t wealthy, and the boys slept together in the living room of their two-room apartment.
Real-time search is a response to a fundamental shift in the way people use the Web. People used to visit a page, click a link, and visit another page. Now they spend a lot of time monitoring streams of data—tweets, status updates, headlines— from services like Facebook and Twitter, as well as from blogs and news outlets. Ephemeral info-nuggets are the Web’s new currency, and sifting through them for useful information is a challenge for search engines. Its most daunting aspect, according to Singhal, is not collecting the data. Facebook and Twitter are happy to sell access to their data feeds—or “ﬁre hoses,” as they call them—directly to search providers; the information pours straight into Google’s computers. What’s really hard about real-time search is ﬁguring out the meaning and value of those ﬂeeting bits of information. The challenge goes beyond ﬁltering out spam, though that’s an important part of it. People who search real-time data want the same quality, authority, and relevance that they expect when they perform traditional Web searches. Nobody wants to drink straight from a ﬁre hose.
Google dominates traditional search by meticulously tracking links to a page and other signals of its value as they accumulate over time. But for real-time search, this doesn’t work. Social-networking messages can lose their value within minutes of being written. Google has to gauge their worth in seconds, or even microseconds. Google is notoriously tight-lipped about its search algorithms, but Singhal explains a few of the variables the company uses to analyze what he calls “chatter.” Some are straightforward. A Twitter user who attracts many followers, and whose tweets are often “retweeted” by other users, can generally be assumed to have more authority. Similarly, Facebook users gain authority as their friends multiply, particularly if those friends also have many friends.
Early on, Pichai had a talent for remembering numbers, which his family realized when he could recall every phone number he had ever dialed on their rotary phone. He will still sometimes show off his memorization skills at meetings.
Other signals are more subtle. A sudden spike in the prevalence of a word in a message stream—earthquake, say—may indicate an important event. If a message on a commonly discussed topic includes unusual phrasing, that may signal new information or a fresh insight. Google continuously scans for shifts in language and other deviations from predicted behavior. The company is also working to connect message content to the geolocation data that’s transmitted by smart phones and other mobile computers, or broadcast through services like Foursquare. The location of someone sending a message can matter a great deal. If you know that a person tweeting about an earthquake is close to the epicenter, chances are those tweets will be more valuable than those of someone hundreds of miles away. Pichai’s view of real-time search is very much in line with Google’s strategy: distilling from a welter of data the few pieces of content that are most relevant to an individual searcher at a particular point in time.
After becoming interested in computers — the first software program he wrote was a chess game — Pichai studied metallurgical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur. His success there won him a scholarship to Stanford.
Other search providers, including Google’s arch rival, Microsoft, are taking a more radical view. Sean Suchter, who runs Microsoft’s Search Technology Center in Mountain View, CA, doesn’t like the term real-time search, which he considers too limiting. He thinks Microsoft’s Bing search engine should not just ﬁlter data ﬂowing from social networks but become an extension of them. Ultimately, says Suchter, one-on-one conversations will take place within Bing, triggered by the keywords people enter. Real-time search, he predicts, will be so different from what came before that it will erase Google’s long-standing advantages. “History doesn’t matter here,” he says. After a pause, he adds, “We’re going to wipe the ﬂoor with them.” everyone on the desk has heard such threats before, and so far they haven’t amounted to much. But even we admit that realtime search comes as close to marking “a radical break” in the history of search as anything we have seen. Keeping Google on top in the age of chatter may prove to be Pichai’s toughest test.
“Looking to the future, the next big step will be for the very concept of the “device” to fade away. Over time, the computer itself — whatever its form factor — will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day. We will move from mobile first to an AI first world,” Pichai said in a seminar held at Google I/O conference in Mountain View, Calif.
“Technology is a democratizing force, empowering people through information…There is still much work to be done to make Search and our Google services more helpful to you throughout your day,” Pichai describes his further plans of google in his speech.
Moving to California was a huge leap. “I always loved technology and while growing up I had dreams of Silicon Valley,” Pichai said in a recent interview. “I used to read about it, hear stories from my uncle.”
Pichai interviewed at the Googleplex on April Fools’ Day in 2004 — the same day the company launched Gmail. Everyone, Pichai included, initially thought that the free email service was one of Google’s infamous pranks.
Pichai got his start working on Google’s search toolbar. But in 2006, Microsoft created a “Doomsday” scenario for Google by making Bing the new default search engine on Internet Explorer. Pichai helped convince computer manufacturers to preinstall the Toolbar on their hardware to mitigate the effect of this change.
That Internet Explorer debacle led to another big early achievement for Pichai: convincing cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to make Google build its own browser. The result, Chrome, is now the most-used option out there.
As a leader, Pichai was always well-liked and more focused on results instead of standing out. That “substance over overt style” attitude attracted attention, though, and he started getting more responsibility.
In many ways, the founding mission of Google back in ’98—”to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”—is even truer and more important to tackle today, in a world where people look to their devices to help organize their day, get them from one place to another, and keep in touch. The mobile phone really has become the remote control for our daily lives, and we’re communicating, consuming, educating, and entertaining ourselves, on our phones, in ways unimaginable just a few years ago.