My stunted interview with Google's Eric Schmidt

I flew 2,500 miles to interview a guy who works 40 miles away from me and all I got to talk about was health care. At least I got the frequent-flier miles.

I've always wanted to interview Google CEO Eric Schmidt one-on-one, and this week I finally got the chance.

Eric Schmidt is all smiles before declining to answer any questions not related to Google Health in a one-on-one interview. Elinor Mills/CNET News.com
I learned that he was going to be making a big Google Health announcement at a health care trade show on Thursday and a Google spokesman promised me I would get a "one-on-one" interview with him in private afterward if I flew out to Orlando, Fla., from San Francisco for the event.

That Schmidt was sitting down with me proved even billionaires can let bygones be bygones. Our professional relationship got off to a rocky start shortly after I joined CNET News.com in mid-2005. OK, so it was a really rocky start. To refresh your memories: We Googled some personal information about Schmidt and wrote about what we found. He didn't like it, and News.com was on the receiving end of a very stern corporate silent treatment from Google for nearly two months.

Since then, in fairness, my relationship with the search king has been considerably better. But a sit down with Mr. Schmidt? Of course, I'd fly cross-country, even if there's a certain absurdity to flying 2,500 miles to interview a guy who works about 40 miles from my office.

I had a list of questions: I was eager to ask Schmidt about recent disappointing ComScore figures for paid search performance and how Google will weather a recession given that lending companies appear to be cutting their ad spending, how Google's going to monetize YouTube and, of course, how it plans to counter a Microsoft-Yahoo tie-up if that should happen.

My editors agreed to send me to the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) 2008 annual conference. I got a last-minute ticket and stocked up with camera, digital recorder, and the list of questions. I arrived a day early to do a preview of the news and get my footing.

The morning of Schmidt's keynote I woke up at 3 a.m. and couldn't get back to sleep, so I was in my near front-row seat well in advance. After covering the keynote and the news conference afterward, I waited for a Google spokesman to take me to see Schmidt. Walking to a green room in the Orange County Convention Center, the Google spokesman told me I could only ask questions about Google Health.

What?! I asked the spokesman if he was serious, and he said "yes." This wasn't what I was expecting. What is Google afraid of?

Schmidt greeted me and agreed to let me take several photos. That was nice. I was told I had 12 minutes and I dove in with several probing questions about Google Health (hey, so you play nice and then try to ask the real questions).

Was it difficult for Google to get health industry players like Aetna, Quest Diagnostics, and Walgreens onboard? "It took a while," he said, adding that Google lined up health experts to be on an advisory health council and they are integrating their systems to work with Google's GData. "It was OK. It wasn't that hard."

How significant to Google was this project? "We prioritized...(looked at) what do people actually do with search in terms of the volume, and the importance of health came out No. 1...We tend to think of Google Health as an extension of search. You could argue it's also an application."

Like with Google News, Schmidt said he hopes that Google Health will lead to more people using Google search and clicking on ads. "Every month we say to ourselves should we add ads to Google News or add more news features to Google News and every month we decide to add more Google news features because...we make so much money from people just using Google search that we don't need to get the extra money from News...A Google News user is more likely to be a Google searcher and therefore clicks on ads more."

This led into a question about Google's reliance on search advertising and how the company would weather a recession. Schmidt cut me off, waved his hand and said, "I'm not going to talk about anything other than Google Health."

Sheepishly, I said, "So, I don't suppose I can ask you about Microsoft and Yahoo?" The answer: "No."

Oh damn. This was bad.

"So what?" you're probably thinking. "Quit your whining, you worthless, note-scribbling toadie and stop annoying this man!" OK, fair point. But give and take with the press is part of being in a position of responsibility at a highly visible public company. Saying everything but the topic at hand is off limits is, well, lame.

When President Bush holds a press conference about, say, buying books for a bunch of sweet school kids in Alabama, he doesn't get to say to the gathered mass of reporters: "I'm happy to take questions, but only if we talk about the books we just bought for these sweet school kids. The economy and the war in Iraq are off limits. So fermez la bouche, Seymour Hersh!"

Of course, he's free to dodge the questions. Some presidents over the years have perfected the art of the dodge. Some, well, they could still use a little work.

Anyway, so back to the interview: Then I said, "um, OK" and looked desperately at my notes and all the questions I had that wouldn't get answered. OK, I'll admit it, I was stymied. I not-so-subtly tried to use Google Health as an entree to other questions.

Can you discuss your strategy with regard to social networks and whether that will play a part in Google Health? "It may over time...It makes sense that people who are in health situations are going to want to have a social community."

And how does this fit in with your mobile strategy? "Everything we do we're doing for the mobile wireless space as well, so the interface you see will be available in our mobile strategies...We'll re-whack the pages a little bit...In mobile, we're having tremendous successes."

Will Google Health work with other Google properties like Gmail and Google Docs, and what about YouTube? I ask him, grasping for any connection to use.

"In YouTube you could imagine that health videos stored on YouTube would be easily indexable...There are a lot of Google Health videos already on YouTube." (Earlier, during his keynote, he had this nugget to say about YouTube: "Ten hours of video is being uploaded into YouTube every minute. God knows what the quality of that video is! But it's coming.")

So, what will search, on Google Health and in general, look like in five years? "It's hard to predict what we'll do in five years...You could imagine eventually we would know how to rank much better health information."

This guy was good. Total talking points. I'm not sure why he declined to answer these "off topic" questions, other than that he could.

I was told I could ask one last question and I asked him what question have I not asked that I should have? Among reporters, this is generally our last-ditch, I-gotta-get-something-good-or-my-editor-is-going-to-kill-me question.

"I don't think you have highlighted sufficiently the platform characteristic of this," Schmidt responded. "Everyone is assuming it is personal health record...I think of it as a platform upon which many services can be built and it is through that platform that the real innovation occurs."

As a follow up to that I squeezed in a question about Microsoft's health care platform HealthVault and how does that differ from Google Health? Getting up from his chair, Schmidt said, "That's it."

Just like that it was over and I was hustled out the door.

So, my one-on-one with Schmidt wasn't exactly what I had hoped it would be. But at least I'm getting closer to a free plane trip somewhere in the continental United States on a non-holiday, non-blackout date in the near future.

 

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