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March 11, 2006

Google and the Wisdom of Crowds

From the famous PowerPoint presentation that leaked on Google's site:

"Slide #10 – Picture of Cow / "Collective Wisdom"

What does a cow have anything to do with this?

If you haven't read James Surowiecki's "Wisdom of Crowds", I highly recommend it. In the book, Surowiecki tells a story about an experiment done in the 19th century. It was by this British anthropologist named Francis Galton.

What Galton did in the experiment was go to a county fair where he had close to 800 people guess the weight of an ox by writing their guess on a slip of paper. Among the 800 or so people were a lot of ordinary county fair goers but there were also some experts – butchers, cattle farmers, you know, the sort of people who would have a reasonably good idea how much a particular cow should weigh.

The remarkable outcome of this experiment is that when Galton tallied all the guesses, the average guess, that is, the collective guess of the crowd was significantly better than the guess of any individual within the group. Think about that. The crowd was wiser than any individual, and that included the experts.

This principle has proven out over and over. And you see it everywhere: financial markets, political elections, and even the synchronization of traffic.

So let's go back to the Hustle and Flow graph I showed you earlier. But instead of just Hustle and Flow, think about every single piece of content ever created and owned by CBS. Now let me ask you a few questions – these are rhetorical:

* Do you know exactly how many assets you have? By assets, I mean all the content you've ever owned or created. Do you know exactly? Do you have the count? (Remember, I'm a computer scientist. I have to ask these things.)

* What percentage of your assets is currently available to users such that they can access it any time, view it, enjoy it any time? And I don't necessarily mean on Google Video, but it could be on your own web sites. What percentage? Pretty small?

* Now let's say you could suddenly make all your assets available to users worldwide. If this happened, do you know which of your assets would be most popular? Would it be last season's Survivor finale? Or would it be a segment from 60 Minutes that might have aired 10 years ago? Do you know which assets would be most popular in Miami vs. most popular in Ft. Lauderdale? Or in the U.S. vs. in Cambodia? Or on Wednesday mornings vs. Sunday nights?

Here's a fact that I've learned while at Google and I want to share it with you: a company is not smarter than the consumers of that company's products. "

More about Google Analyst Day:

Google Analyst Day Highlights
Google wants to become a $100 billion company
Google focuses on search
Infinite storage, bandwidth, and CPU power
Google strategy in 2006

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