Author Archives: Kirstin Wright

Humans behind Search: Meet Mor

Googler Mor Schlesinger, who heads up the Climate and Crisis Response team, shares her insights.

What led you to your current role?

I was a serial entrepreneur, working in tech since I was 17, and was looking to create my next startup when someone at Google asked me to join the organization. I now lead the new Climate and Crisis Response teams within Search. It was clearly needed because people were coming to Google in the millions – people affected by floods, wildfires, and other climate crises – to find timely, helpful and actionable information. I joined because I wanted to impact society at large and Google offered the platform to do it at scale.

What’s the most innovative feature that you’ve worked on that has had the most impact on people?

Definitely SOS Alerts. It’s one of our most innovative products and a great example of Artificial Intelligence (AI) being used to help people prepare ahead of a crisis and stay informed. The guiding principle of SOS Alerts is ‘expect the unexpected,’ because crisis events are so dynamic and unpredictable. So it can help people in the midst of natural disasters – from earthquakes, wildfires and floods – to man-made disasters such as war. So of course it’s very relevant to the situation in Ukraine, where SOS Alerts have provided accurate and timely information in the region.

How exactly does it help people?

In times of crisis, people need information to make life or death decisions within minutes. So people come to Google and tend to ask four fundamental questions, ‘What is happening?’ ‘Where is it happening?’ ‘What do we need to do?’ and ‘How can we help?’ We build our product to help with these questions, so we make it easy for people to get authoritative and locally relevant information to help them navigate the crisis.

What’s been the most significant moment in your career in Search so far?

There hasn’t really been a significant moment, it’s more a sense throughout my time here that I've been able to have, literally, a life saving impact on people. It really hit home when I was scanning through user feedback and I saw the words, “Thank you Google you saved my life!” I thought wow. It’s such a privilege to be able to help people – for a job. It’s so amazing!

Where was that person?

They were close to a shooting incident and didn’t know what was happening. They’d heard shots and saw people running, then they checked Google and found out that they needed to stay put and take cover.

Where do you see the biggest progress being made in tracking our changing environment in the next 3-5 years?

I think at the intersection between climate and crisis, which is basically climate change. And one thing we know about climate change is that we’re going to see more frequent and more severe natural disasters. Advances in artificial intelligence together with search mean we can give advance notifications to users in life-threatening situations and enable them to act. For example, if we think that you’re in danger of an earthquake, we can issue early warnings to all Android phones in the area. Studies show that if you get to people before a crisis, you have nine times more impact.

What excites you about the future of Search and the real-life impact it can have?

For me personally, I think it's the intersection between climate and technology. We can all do our individual parts to mitigate climate change, but I believe that it’s the largest crisis that we face as humanity. And when I think about how we can help in this huge effort globally, well, I feel privileged to take part.

Humans behind Search: Meet Guy

Guy is lead product manager at the Journalist Studio, where he works on tools to support the work of journalists.

Tell us about your work in Search and how it helps journalists worldwide.

My team works on Google Trends andPinpoint, amongst other products that are still in incubation. All sit within theJournalist Studio, which is a collection of tools that help journalists to do their work more efficiently, creatively, and securely.

How is Google Trends helpful for journalists?

Being able to see what people are searching for gives an accurate insight into the topics of the day – or indeed month or year, spanning anything from sporting events and seasonal recipes to news stories and celebrity gossip. It’s therefore super useful to journalists, who use Google Trends a lot – to help them uncover new story ideas, or to complement their research and enhance their storytelling. Every year we share aYear In Search round up, and it’s hugely exciting for our team to see media around the world talking about the changing themes that are shown.

What problem does Pinpoint solve for journalists?

Reporters often have to spend a lot of time sifting through large collections of handwritten documents, images and audio recordings. This material can range from freedom of information requests, which can return hundreds of thousands of documents, to court hearing transcripts or police reports. Similarly, audio material can be lengthy interviews or weekly council meeting recordings and so on. Sometimes reporters know what they’re looking for and sometimes they have to skim thousands of pages or listen to hours of audio just to figure it out – and often with intense deadlines looming.

Using advanced AI, Pinpoint processes documents and images, and indexes them so users can search for keywords, or easily find names of people, places or organizations. Similarly, it transcribes audio recordings, turning them into searchable text. So for reporters, it’s taking a task that would have taken a few people weeks to achieve, and shrinking it into a task that they can do alone, and more accurately, in just a few hours. We’ve had incredible feedback from journalists across the globe about how Pinpoint is an amazing time saver.

Academic researchers and students also find Pinpoint useful and so we also allow them access too.

What’s been the most exciting part of working on Pinpoint?

The initial research was fascinating because it was quite a new world for our team. We spent a lot of time attending journalistic conferences, running user studies to hear about what they needed, paying attention not just to what they were saying but also to what they weren’t saying, to see if there were deeper needs that we could solve.

I was most excited about the immersion trips where the team spent two or three days in newsrooms around the world from early morning to evening. We saw everything from how they run their editorial meetings to how they make their coffee, their running jokes, and so on – really immersing ourselves into their professional life.

So it was about learning and distilling the huge breadth of their needs on the one hand, and exploring a broad set of Google’s technological capabilities on the other. Then bringing them together. It was really exciting to find the sweet spot of where those two intersected.

Humans Behind Search: Meet Matt

Matt Cooke, who heads up the Google News Lab, talks about how his team’s keeping it real in news and search.

First, can you tell us about the Google News Initiative and the work that your team does?

The Google News Initiative is the part of Google that works with journalists and entrepreneurs to drive innovation in news — from surfacing factual information to helping local publishers to digitize their content.

As part of that, the News Lab offers partnerships and training in 70 countries around the world to bring Google technology to journalists and news publishers. We want to help strengthen digital skills to help journalists verify sources, fact check and explore different forms of storytelling for audiences searching for accurate information.

Tell us about your background and what led to working at Google.

I worked for a number of years at BBC in various roles, including reporting from the East London multimedia newsroom in the build-up to the 2012 Olympic Games. We gave members of the audience access to small cameras, which got me thinking about the potential of digital storytelling. So when the opportunity came along at Google, I seized it! I’m coming up to my 10th anniversary here.

What tips can you give readers searching for credible news and information?

News comes to us in so many different ways and formats these days so it can sometimes be hard to tell what's authoritative and accurate. But there are tools available to help, and there are five things I would recommend when it comes to checking authenticity:

  1. If you’ve stumbled across something surprising, check the source. The About This Result feature provides details about a website before you visit it, including its description, when it was first indexed and whether your connection to the site is secure.
  2. If an image looks suspicious you can go toGoogle Images and do a reverse image search by clicking on the camera icon and dragging in your picture. An example of an obvious fake, that many will have seen and that recurs, is the shark swimming up a flooded street.
  3. Again if a story is surprising, look at other news sources to see if they’re covering it too. If they’re not, that could give you some pause for thought. Stories on Google news have the option for ‘full coverage,’ which means you can see how others are reporting the same story.
  4. We have something called theFact Check Explorer which allows you to type in a search term and then it shows you counterclaims and debunks of that theory by fact checking organisations.
  5. Google Maps, Google Earth and Street View can all help you verify whether an image that you are seeing is from the reported location. This can be done by checking for shadows of, for example, mountains or nearby buildings on Street View, and by matching them up with Google Earth.

There are some amazing and painstaking examples of work from BBC Africa Eye with video verification. It shows that by combining digital tools with great journalism, you can get to the heart of what’s really going on.

How are you tackling deep fakes?

Technology evolves fast, but our engineering teams and trust and safety teams are working hard to make sure that our technology stays ahead of emerging threats, and we’re working closely with industry partners too to understand how they’re engaging with verification and misinformation. It’s an industry-wide effort.

Progress is being made, for example YouTube has something calledContent ID which allows organisations to detect their IP copyright and content.

How does Google make sure that organisations don’t game the algorithm?

We update the search algorithm thousands of times a year and work hard to make sure that the information people find is the most accurate, authoritative and relevant to what they’re looking for. We have policies in place to prevent spam and any deceptive practices — there’s more information here about how Search works. And I’d also add that we place a lot of importance on people finding good quality local news from reliable sources as well.

How do you make sure that search literacy isn’t confined to the few and privileged?

Over the last few years we’ve spent a lot of time with media literacy experts to provide newsroom style lessons for primary and secondary school students across the UK, a good example is Be Internet Legends which has reached over 70% of primary schools in England.

And there’s more that can be done outside the classroom. Last year, we contributed €25 million to the European Media and Information Fund, which supports funding for publishers, academics and researchers to research and implement media literacy.

What excites you about Search?

One of the things that my team works with is a tool calledGoogle Trends, which shows you anonymised, indexed data on what people are searching for across a given location or a given time.

We collaborate with broadcasters, journalists, academics and non-profits to see what emerging patterns and trends in search reveal. What’s really interesting is how changing questions reveal changing attitudes across time. It’s useful for journalists, or indeed anybody who’s interested, to see what preoccupations people have around major news events.

For example, if you're looking for the latest design trends, we can see that Search interest for 'japandi interior design' has increased by 973% in the last 12 months. Similarly, if you're wondering what people in the UK are reading, we can share that between 2017 and 2021, Search interest for books on neurodiversity has increased by 1280%.

What’s your most loved search feature that everybody should know about?

Some of the more Advanced Search features can really save time. So if you’re searching for information about an institution or a public figure, often you’ll have to wade through lots of information. If you want to delve deeper you can start to remove repetitive information, simply by putting a minus symbol in front of a word. For example, I travel a lot for work so if you’re looking for information about UK airports but you don’t want to focus on Heathrow you can type in ‘UK airports -Heathrow.’ It is simple, but saves lots of time!

On Google Street View, my favourite desktop tool is the little clock at the top of the screen. This allows you to go back in time so you can see how things have changed. For example, when Britain was getting ready to host the 2012 Olympic Games, you can see all the flags and banners up in central London. And where cities change fast, for example East London, you can see how new developments have taken the place of old buildings. Take a look!

Humans Behind Search: Hadas, software engineer and trends expert

Hadas Jacobi is a software engineer working in Search on Google Trends. Hadas has been with Google, based in Tel Aviv since February 2019. She spoke to The Keyword about how Trends has developed over the years and what may lie ahead for the popular Search feature.

Can you tell us a bit about how Google Trends works?

What Google Trends does is take a sample of the searches people make on Google to figure out how high the search interest for a given keyword is at any given time — relative to the total amount of searches. For example, after the now infamous Will Smith Oscars incident, we saw searches for “Will Smith Oscars” increased by 500 times.

We also make an educated guess about where the searches are coming from, and that’s how we are able to display a map of search interest in different places. We do this based on the data flowing through Google Search day in and day out — so we’re able to see the search interest from 2004 all the way up to just a few minutes ago. This is really helpful in understanding how the interest in different topics changes over time and in different places.

A lot of researchers and journalists use Trends as sort of an anthropological tool to give them a view into what interests people in private, but may not be in the collective consciousness. For example, you can use Google Trends to help detect local disease outbreaks long before disease control centers detect them, simply by looking at where people were using Google to look up their symptoms.

What excites you about the future of Trends?

We’re working a lot on how Google Trends can help the world of journalism. As I mentioned earlier, it gives us this unique view into what interests people. We know journalists use Trends to research their stories, but the tool also gives them insight into what topics people are currently interested in, which allows them to tailor their content to their readers' interests.

We’re really working on figuring out ways to help journalists enhance their storytelling by making the data more relevant to their needs, exploring ways to make things better, faster and more useful for local journalists.

What were people searching most for last year?

First up, “feta pasta.” It was a huge trend last year — and I even made some myself at one point — but seeing that it made the list of top trending five food searches globally did shock me. It can be surprising to see some of your own searches there. There were also a lot of cryptocurrency terms among the top trending searches — things like “ethereum” and “dogecoin.”

What are the challenges of running a product like Trends?

Trends is huge in terms of the scale of data that runs through it. We process a sample of the billions of searches that are made every day around the world, and the amount of daily searches just keeps on growing. We also have to be able to make all of this available to Trends users so that they can look up whatever keywords they want for any time and any place.

It’s pretty crazy the amount of engineering work that has gone into making all this run smoothly over the years — the amount of data grows faster and faster because people are searching more on Google every year. It always amazes me that of the trillions of searches we see every year, 15% are brand new every day.

Looking at Search as a whole, what direction do you see the product taking in the future?

I can certainly talk about what I’d like to see. I love it when it feels like the technology just gets me and knows what I’d like to do next. For example, when searching for a TV show, Search brings up the cast because it just knows that it’s something I might instinctually be interested in.

I’d like to see this mature into other areas. For example, Search could suggest related topics or other things I might be interested in based on my habits and what I just searched. Essentially anything that helps me to continue exploring my curiosities around a particular search I would love.

So if I searched for “weekend hike” it would suggest “local wildlife field guide” and then “baby deer season” because it’s possible I might be interested in that without even knowing that I was. So for me, I’d love to see a continuation of timely, topical suggestions as you go.

Humans Behind Search: Doodle guest artist, Joe Impressions

Joe Impressions is a graphic designer based in Nairobi, Kenya. In honor of what would have been the 71st birthday of the late professor Okoth Okombo of Nairobi University, Joe served as a local guest artist to create a Google Doodlereflecting Professor Okombo’s contribution and legacy that launched on November 8, 2021. Professor Okombo was one of the founders of the scientific study of sign language in Africa and a distinguished scholar in Nilotic language study. Here, we speak to Joe about using Search in his design process and how curiosity fuels how he works.

Thanks for chatting with us, Joe. So, how does one go from doodling for fun to being a Google Doodle guest artist?

Curiosity has driven my whole creative journey. I grew up doodling Bible stories for children back at home as a child. In high school, I began secretly doodling on the back pages of my school books. That's when I discovered my love for art, so I enjoyed using my free time to doodle for fun.

Afterwards, I went to university and studied a non-art-related course. My mother bought me my first laptop which spurred my interest in creating digital art. This curiosity led me to discover computer software that enabled me to create my own art. Midway, I was tempted to switch courses and study art, but I chose not to. Instead, I decided to utilize my free time every day to practice and learn how to use software such as Adobe Illustrator through online tutorials.

After graduation, I had greatly improved my skills, but then the COVID pandemic started. I went back home and since there wasn't much going on, I had a lot of free time. As remote working became a thing, I slowly started to get freelance jobs and clients from freelance platforms. This gave me valuable experience working with clients on actual real-life projects.

Over time, my online portfolio on Behance (a social media platform for designers) grew, and eventually people noticed me and my work. I was honored when Google approached me to create a Doodle for Professor Okoth Okombo's 71st birthday. This still motivates me to keep moving forward and find new opportunities to expand my skills.

You spoke about ‘curiosity being your guide’ in the creative process. What was your starting point with creating this Doodle?

I start my creative process long before I begin the drawing bit. I am always curiously observing and absorbing the people, art, and world around me to ignite my creativity. As I walk, travel, or dream, I am always ready to be inspired.

Once I have been inspired, I begin the research phase. I begin my research by brainstorming keywords derived from my imagination and feelings. I like to list down keywords and ideas that are easy to search for on Google, such as "lecturer" and "student." Next, I Google Searched the internet for relevant photographs, images, paintings and illustrations in order to get a realistic setting in perspective and composition. Additionally, looking at previous Doodles by other artists helped me form my general expectations. Having a rough idea of­ what I would like to search for before starting research helps me stay focused.

Having done all this, I felt comfortable to start the sketching phase. I came up with three rough sketches to present to Google for feedback. We selected the best concept based on the feedback. The next step was to refine the sketch into accurate outlines. I usually make my outlines look organic and hand-drawn by varying the stroke width using custom brushes in Adobe Illustrator.

The final stage is the coloring and rendering stage. The colors for this Doodle are inspired by the Kenyan Flag (black, red, green, and white). I save hundreds of nice images that I come across so that I can reference their colors later. I do this to enlarge the library of colors that I use in my work.

Image of Joe Impressions' Google Doodle honoring the late professor Okoth Okombo

Joe Impressions' Google Doodle honoring the late professor Okoth Okombo.

How do you use Search in your day-to-day life in Kenya? For information, escapism or something else?

Throughout my journey, Search has been like a giant key that I use to unlock doors of information. Every day, Search makes it effortless to access a vast amount of information for free. I started out illustrating by searching for art tutorials on my phone and laptop using school Wi-Fi. Many college and university students are dependent on search to complete assignments and do research.

These days, I use Search more than ever. I search daily for everything, like resources, entertainment, and ways to connect with others and keep myself informed. With the current increasing internet penetration rate, the search continues to provide young Kenyan creatives with resources that could have been inaccessible before. Search is contributing to the rising access to online jobs as the source of work opportunities is shifting to digital platforms.

Any advice for aspiring Doodle artists out there?

The best way for aspiring Doodle artists to improve their craft is to stay inspired, be consistent, and do lots of practice. The creative process is often cloudy, filled with doubts and revisions. Keep hunting down those elusive ideas every day. You will eventually find them, and people will start to notice you and your work.

Don’t let insufficient resources stop you from following your dreams. Use everything you have at your disposal to learn, and it will pay off in the long run.

What does the Google Doodle mean to you?

This Doodle gave me a massive chance to fuse my illustration skills, former university experiences, and the inspiration that I got from other Google Doodles. All my previous interactions with other Doodles left me with a piece of information that I did not know before. It was my moment to celebrate Professor Okoth Okombo by showing my vision of what I imagined Professor Okoth Okombo’s lectures would feel like.

Moreover, my mom, now a lecturer, was once Professor Okoth Okombo's student at the University of Nairobi. That makes this Doodle very meaningful to me.