Nikesh Arora: We're living in a Google world

The internet search engine is only seven years old, but it's already worth more than General Motors and Disney combined. Not only that, but its staff get free food and bring their pets to work. Ian Burrell meets its new European director
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The Independent Online

Amid the hurly-burly of London's Charing Cross Road, where the gutters are clogged with fast food litter and discarded leaflets for cheap English courses, a dingy side street beside the famous Astoria music venue leads to one of the most important new sites in the British media landscape.

Amid the hurly-burly of London's Charing Cross Road, where the gutters are clogged with fast food litter and discarded leaflets for cheap English courses, a dingy side street beside the famous Astoria music venue leads to one of the most important new sites in the British media landscape.

Behind an imposing gate is an ultra-modern block that takes the visitor - via a talking lift - to offices where the £43bn entity known as Google Inc is devising its strategy for becoming a feature of the daily life of every British household.

This is the British "Googleplex", where the reception area is furnished with a bean bag in corporate colours beneath a palm tree and where passing members of staff help themselves to free smoothies from the fridge and take in the latest headlines projected onto the wall direct from Google News.

The man driving Google into the British consciousness is Nikesh Arora, 37, who was recently recruited by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in an interview conducted among the artefacts of the British Museum. Brin and Page, who set up Google in 1998, are still only 31 but each has amassed a personal fortune of £6bn.

"We walked around. We looked at the exhibits and a lot of our conversation was about the Rosetta stone," says Arora, referring to an Egyptian artefact that dates to 196BC and is inscribed in three languages. The Greek wording enabled scholars to decipher the hieroglyphics and was a major breakthrough in Egyptology. Arora says: "We discussed how it was an amazing parallel to Google translating its services around the world."

As this informal interview concluded, Arora left the museum but Brin continued to tour the exhibits. Ten days later Arora learned that he had the job.

Google now operates in 109 languages. The company, which last month saw its share price rise to a record $255 (treble the $85 it floated at just last August) is already worth more than General Motors and Walt Disney combined. Arora, who is in charge not just of the UK operation but the whole of Europe, is responsible for a network of nine offices from Stockholm to Madrid.

"We are at the tip of a consumer phenomenon and we haven't seen anything yet," he says. "It's challenging because we are growing really, really rapidly and we are having to hire a lot of really smart people and train them into the Google way of doing things."

This is a company where the staff bring their dogs into the workplace, so canines such as Rufus, Jasmine and Floyd are regulars in the office.

"We are pet friendly and we make sure that people get to eat when they work. We have fresh fruit and cereals here for everybody every morning. People get their food free here. It's the little things that make for a happy workforce and happier people are more productive," says Arora. "Our founders have preserved the culture of the company since its inception because we believe our way of doing things is our competitive advantage."

If Google staff struggle to find a childminder, Arora, who lives in Kensington with his wife and seven-year-old daughter, says he tells them: "Bring your kid here."

Google has already become part of modern culture, taking a place once occupied by the family dictionary, the encyclopaedia collection, the phone book and more. Comedian Dave Gorman has written a best-selling book and enjoyed sell-out tours describing his Googlewhacking adventures (see box).

At last count, Google had indexed a staggering 8,058,044,651 web pages on its servers. Arora thinks this is just the beginning. "We are at the tip of a trend," he says. "Less than 10 per cent of the world's information is online today. The remaining 90 per cent is still out there on television programmes, on radio stations and in books in libraries."

Google intends to put the texts of books, the scripts of radio and television programmes and films (along with the pictures and sound that go with them) into formats where they can be sifted and sorted by the world's most famous search engine. A new service called Google Print is digitising 15 million books from some of the most prestigious libraries in the world, including that of Oxford University.

Arora, who is the first Google vice president to be appointed outside the US, says: "We are taking all the books out there so that people can go and search out information and either go and buy the book or get it from a library."

He claims that rather than making libraries and bookshops redundant, Google Print will re-energise the interest of younger generations in classic texts. "The more that is available online, the more people will go and look at works that they didn't know about and the more they will buy them," he claims.

Google Video, another project under development, will enable users to search home videos, films and television programmes (using scripts, captions and programme guides). Arora says: "If I miss a programme at 9pm on a Sunday why should I have to wait until the cable gods show it again? We provide a platform and work with the partners who have the content to make it accessible to customers."

Arora is a cultured man with a globetrotting wanderlust (he came to London via America, Germany and India) and a healthy disrespect for cosy convention that seems to embody the Google spirit. "The moment I stop believing my management I leave," he says. "Life's too short - I'm giving more time to my company than to my family. It's very important that I love the people I work with and work for."

He chooses to highlight a key phrase in Google's company ethos: "Do No Evil". Arora says: "People say 'what does that mean?' and that's an interesting question in itself because it means to everybody in the company what they think is implied by the statement. So a lot of people make sure that we don't put the interests of anybody else before the interests of the customer - and that's the phenomenal force of Google." He acknowledges that Google has "a responsibility to our shareholders" but claims "we are not a commercially oriented organisation".

Arora is sitting in Google's "Bolan Room", beneath a brightly coloured screenprint of the 1970s rock legend more associated with Telegram Sam than the worldwide web. Bolan crashed his Mini into a tree on Barnes Common in 1977 when the internet was little more than a plaything for a handful of scientists at the US government's Advanced Research Project Agency.

In a few short years, the internet, says Arora, has moved from being "an interesting distraction" to something that is "ingrained in our lives". Today's children, he observes, are "going to do three times the things we do on the internet. We just don't even know it". He cites his own family as examples of the growth of communications technology. His 68-year-old father texting him "HIHOWAREU?" at about the same time that his four-year-old daughter rejected a gift of a toy phone because it lacked a SIM card. "What's going to happen in future is that the whole notion of connectivity is going to become our lives," he says.

In its most recent quarterly results Google posted profits of $396m, up from a relatively humble $64m the same quarter a year ago. The extraordinary level of growth (Europe now accounts for more than 20 per cent of revenues) creates problems, particularly with new recruitment. Arora says, "We are trying to cope with our success ... move as fast as we can to find really smart, qualified people."

Google's advances have provoked fears that it is planning global takeover by stealth. French commentators have levelled accusations that the California-based company is engaged in "cultural imperialism".

Arora won't have it. "When you go to it's a French site. All the content is in French and when you do a search it results in content in France. It happened to be a technology platform we developed in Mountain View, California."

In France, he notes, 60 per cent of consumers use Google as a search engine - "the consumers are voting with their fingers". Google says it drives around 60 per cent of searches in the UK but in Spain the company already has a stunning 96 per cent of the traffic.

The company is continually developing new features to add to its basic search engine. Google Local is a new addition in the UK, which appears to provide direct competition for existing online services (such as Multimap, Streetmap and that offer information on local shops and services and route maps. Arora is unapologetic, describing the service as "a fascinating example of sometimes you don't have to be first, you just have to be very good'". He continues: "It's a combination of mapping products, of Yellow Pages-type products, of local directory products and driving directions all poured into one."

Google is working on improving the service by installing Google Earth technology, already available in the US, that allows consumers to picture their route using satellite images.

"The UK is a fascinating market. It picks the best of both worlds - a lot of trends migrate to the UK because of the lack of a language barrier and it is still seen as the gateway to Continental Europe," says Arora. "The UK is one of the top markets for Google in terms of world focus and is the landing base for us in Europe where we try all these new things."

More controversially it is planning an assault on the world of email with its recently launched Gmail, which provides users with BBC headlines, local weather forecasts and share prices on a familiar Google page that combines search engine with email. Arora is convinced it will be a success but says: "Talk to people around the world about whether there's room for another email concept and they say 'Everything that could be done has been done'."

It is behaviour like this that enrages rivals such as Microsoft (which has vastly greater resources and has already promised to "catch up and surpass Google" in search engine technology) and Yahoo! (which has a powerbase of 100 million registered email users and which is not far behind Google in terms of searches).

Google has made its gains without charging users for any of its services. It makes all its money from advertising, though it does not charge advertisers if nobody clicks on an ad. "We let the consumers decide if they want to click on an ad and we don't demand payment until somebody clicks on an ad," says Arora. "That's an important innovation in the world of advertising - we are not going to thrust ourselves on anybody."

Arora says that while television might now have more than 50 per cent of advertising share, it is not so long ago that TV didn't exist and print media had the cake to itself.

"As new media arrive, they are initially sluggish but they reach a tipping point where they become mainstream and advertisers realise they are a place where people don't just go for fun but for serious business," he says. "Advertising should follow the amount of consumer time spent with a medium - that's what happened with television and radio and that's what will happen with the internet."

He says that advertisers that watched Celebrity Love Island cannot be sure how many people watched their commercial, unlike internet advertisers which can determine the time a consumer came to their site and what they looked at once they were there.

Google is so effective that it does not need to advertise itself, he claims. "Google doesn't spend money advertising; it spends money making sure the product is the best and that consumers use it. As a consequence the brand gets stronger."

It is out-of-the-box thinking like this that drew Arora to Google. He says: "Most big companies are fixated with short-term quarterly earnings. But Google says businesses are cyclical and require investment at certain times and we are going to do what's right for the business, and if that means this quarter our numbers are different from the last quarter we will tell you why. I thought, 'This makes perfect sense - why don't more people do this?'"

Arora went to school in Varanasi, the holiest of Indian cities, with its ancient steps leading down to the sacred waters of the River Ganges. Varanasi is revered in India as "The Home of All Knowledge", a title which younger generations are already conveying on the Great God Google. From a young age Arora had "the travel bug in my feet", the result of a childhood spent on the move as the son of a leading figure in the Indian air force.

So at the age of 21 he left India behind and headed to America. "I had two suitcases and nothing else to my name," he remembers. Taking a position at Boston's Northeastern University, he "had to fend for myself", with jobs taking notes for disabled people, guarding the university dorms, teaching corporate finance to adult education students and, for two days, working at Burger King. Business school led to prestigious jobs as an analyst in the telecoms sector, but in 1999 Arora decided life had become too comfortable, packed his bags again and headed for Europe.

"I enjoy working in places which are very fast-moving and where things are changing. As my life takes on a steady pattern I do things to undo the pattern," he says. He took a small flat in Bonn, working as a consultant to Deutsche Telekom before he moved to London and started up a mobile multimedia company called T-Motion, which was inspired by the way Japanese consumers had embraced the growth of mobile phone technology. The company, based in Minories in the City of London, was subsumed by T-Mobile and Arora was given a position on the phone giant's board.

High-flier though he undoubtedly is, it is a big step up to his role at a company that has evolved in seven short years into one of the most powerful brands in the world. "The challenge and opportunity we have is that Google has done in the past five to seven years what it has taken many companies 15 to 20 years to do. I'm sure there are things we have done quickly on the way which we need to go back and make sure they are more robust," he admits. "Three years ago we had only a handful of people in Europe."

For a company that is apparently dedicated to the dissemination of every nugget of information, Google is extraordinarily reticent to release statistics about its own operations. Asked how many of Google's 3,500 staff are based in Europe, Nikesh promises that "we should be able to resolve that for you" but colleagues later say they cannot provide a figure. Google itself might have responded: "Your search did not match any documents."

Arora admits he didn't like London at first but now, his childhood love of cricket reawakened, he says, "I wonder how I will ever move out of this city - there's so much to do."

One way or another he has a lot on his plate and Google founders Brin and Page will be monitoring his progress carefully. In the meantime, he has some recruiting of his own to do. He says, "Last year our revenues grew 80 per cent, so you have to grow the staff at a high double-digit number. I have to get them to understand the Google way of doing things 5,000 miles away. In California you can smell and breathe the air every day and you become Google-ised in a much shorter period of time. My challenge is to preserve that culture and make them feel part of the Google family."