Google and the Great Wall

“Have You Heard of Google?”

The question was asked by a group of travelling Google product engineers who had just entered the rural Indian village of Ragihalli, thirty miles outside of Bangalore. It was a Google version of a “walkabout”, a 2007 foray out into the world to see first hand how Google was wrapping it’s ever extending tentacles around the globe.

This tour is also how Steven Levy starts his book, “In the Plex”, a somewhat privileged view inside the world’s most successful start up and an examination of “how Google thinks, works and shapes our lives.” Along with India, the gaggle of Googlers touched down in Tokyo, Beijing and Tel Aviv over 16 days in the summer of 2007.

I’ll do a quick review of Levy’s book in the next column, but today I wanted to share how my own path crossed that of the very same group of Googlers (I believe) on the Great Wall of China, about an hour north of Beijing in Badaling. I had just spoken at a search conference in Xiamen, China and added a few days of sight seeing in Beijing with Chris Sherman, the conference organizer.

We started scaling the wall and for the better part of an hour, climbed too many stone steps to count, snaking up from rampart to rampart. Ahead of us was a group of fellow tourists that were obviously from the US. We were a little too far from them to pick up any snippets of their conversation, but in between numerous stops to catch our breath and ease our middle aged joints (at which point we were usually passed by a sprightly Chinese octogenarian) Chris and I chatted about our mutual profession. At one point, Chris quipped, “There has to be a search analogy in here somewhere. Something about how tough it is to get to the top of Google.” He didn’t realize how prophetic his words would be.

We finally got to the top of the public section of the Wall, which ended at a guard outpost. We arrived there about the same time as the other group from the U.S. With no one else around, we offered to take each other’s group pictures. After we exchanged favors, one of the group asked us where we were from. Chris happens to hail from Boulder. Our anonymous photographer had attended university in Colorado. A conversation was soon struck up.

“So, what do you guys do?” our new friend asked. My regular readers will remember I shudder with dread every time I hear that question. I was about to offer some vague and generic answer about being a marketing consultant when Chris piped up, “We’re search marketers.”

“Oh Puhleeze, Chris,” I thought to myself.

We’re zillions of miles from home, on the last outpost of the Great Wall of China, with the only other westerners within sight being the handful of tourists we were sharing our particular viewpoint with. Could there be a less relevant way to start a conversation? What would be the odds that they would know what the hell a “search marketer” was?

Quite good, as it turned out. Our new friend got a wry smile on his face and replied, “Bet you can’t guess where we’re from!”

Yes, it was the same group of Google engineers on their world tour.

On the same trip, I also met U.S. journalist, author and ex-pat James Fallows and had the opportunity to chat with him. He was offering a western perspective (regularly published in The Atlantic) about the complex and often confounding emergence of China as a world power. Twelve of these reports were collected into a book called, “Postcards from Tomorrow Square.”

It’s next on my reading list.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider August 25, 2011