Nearly eight months after Google bought Blogger creator Pyra Labs, Williams is helping Google deploy the technology he built only as a side project in 1999--which is now part of a revolution in personal journaling.
As it does for thousands of people who use the Web logging (or blogging) tool to publish online, Blogger enables Google employees to update personal pages within seconds to the company intranet. Blogs are continually updated Web pages that often turn out to be personal journals or digital diaries, but they can also be news or politically focused. And they've caught on like wildfire: There are roughly 3 million active U.S. blogs, according to a report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Williams, a Nebraska native, moved to the Bay Area in 1997 and worked on intranet Web development for O'Reilly & Associates. That liaison would prove fortuitous. Tim O'Reilly, the company's president and an early investor in Pyra, had friends at Google, and in October 2002, he suggested that the two companies meet.
Williams recently talked to CNET News.com about Google and the future of blogging.
Q: Isn't blogging just creating Yahoo's GeoCities all over again, for which people have their own home page and post whatever they like, including links and their personal thoughts? If someone had a GeoCities home page now, they'd likely be looked at as silly.
A: It's a lot like those home pages. While GeoCities isn't cool, it isn't a bad thing. It did a great thing--enabled great people to instantly publish to the Web. This is the next evolution of that. Publishing was harder with some of the earlier tools, but it fits with personal expression.
When blogging first became popular, it was primarily used to set up vanity pages. It's since morphed into something much bigger. What was the tipping point--and what was its trigger?
The general consensus is that blogs are having a positive effect, and that's why Google is investing.
It's evolved a lot more slowly than people think. There have been incidents--Sept. 11, 2001, the Iraqi war--events that drove a lot more media interest to the medium and affected more serious blogs.
What was attractive to you about joining Google?
We debated it heavily. At first we had tons of respect for Google, (they have) tons of smart people and infrastructure. My main concern: We were actually considering taking more financing at the time, because we were sort of on a roll. We didn't need to sell, but looking at what Google had to offer in distribution and infrastructure and brains--and they were in line with us as a company, philosophically--it just seemed like a great fit.
Philosophically, how so?
The whole "do not be evil" thing, and sort of a democratic approach to how information should be distributed and available for us. We're all about giving anyone a voice, and Google's all about finding out what's important on the Web by what people link to and what people say.
Now that you've been there a little bit, how do you think that Blogger fits in with Google's stated mission to organize the world's information?
Well, I've always thought that it was pretty complementary in terms of that mission--Google does that very well from a global perspective, and what Blogger's always been about is helping people organize information from their own perspective or to share that perspective.
What would be a sensible way to blend blogging in with the functions of a search engine?
We're not really focused on that. We're pretty heads-down in making Blogger a better publishing platform. Most things published through Web logs and Blogger get into Google; there's sort of a free integration there by virtue of Google's goal to search the whole Web.
Over the last four years, since we started Blogger, there's been a tremendous amount of development on the publishing side. There's not been as much progress on the reading and finding-stuff side. That's Google's forte. That's where we see we can add value to the Web log world--helping people find good stuff--hopefully with Google's technology.
One sort of high-level way to look at that is that blogging is a way to collect stuff and comment on it as you're navigating the Web; search is a way to find stuff.
What is your typical day like?
I manage the Blogger team and product, along with the brand. When I got here, I was doing a lot of engineering. I've transitioned out of that. I have a team of engineers, and there's a lot of thinking about the product, writing documents and thinking about what we're doing. There's interesting things going on within Google. We're developing an API (application programming interface) with other developers in the industry, and we remain hooked in with them.
What's the biggest misconception the nonblogging world still has about blogging?
The journalists who take advantage of blogs, I think, can do a better job of reporting on their areas.
What are the biggest trends going on in blogging right now?
Photos are a very big thing. Using digital cameras will become a core way people publish in general--you can now actually post to Blogger through your camera phone. And with various devices coming out with more and more wireless access, we think mobility will be a big part of the blogging--making notes or recordings from wherever you are.
There's a lot of stuff going on in terms of trying to better define the networks. A key element of Web blogs is the community element. Most blogs are not self-contained; they are highly dependent on linking to each other. That's been a fairly manual progress. There's a lot of effort going on to map who's linking to each other and to define the circles of influence.
Is that something Google wants to do?
We are interested in helping people find out what's interesting to them.
Do blogs distort the purity of search engine results? There's been criticism, because blog content winds up getting included with queries that are intended to search out other sorts of content.
There are people at Google on the quality side who know a heck of a lot more about that than me, and they're aware of those criticisms. A lot of the examples I've seen break down under scrutiny. But it's not anything we're discounting.
That blogs are a different type of content may need attention, but so far, I don't believe that they're having a detrimental effect. The general consensus is that they're having a positive effect, and that's why Google is investing.
How is blogging helpful to search engines?
Because Google relies a lot on links in determining what people point to. It's a big factor in their quality measurements. So it's good if there are more links.
What blogs do you regularly read?
I have a list on my blogroll. Internally, we're doing a lot of blogging, so that's where a lot of both my reading and writing goes. We have an installation of Blogger inside Google, and that's gaining more momentum all the time.
How many people blog at Google?
Not sure what the count is, but I know there's a couple hundred or more. It's really interesting to see the network grow from scratch.
Do you use that to get to know one another or to keep up-to-date on projects?
A lot of people use it to keep up-to-date on projects and to share pointers or expertise. I've heard people comment on how it's way easier to know what's going on internally now. You can find out what's going on when you go there or when you're curious about it, but you don't have to be deluged or distracted from your normal day.
Do you think that's a viable area for knowledge management?
It's really interesting for internal communications. The term "knowledge management" has gotten a bad rap, but some people say that's because systems have gotten too complicated. A Blogger-like system is the lowest common denominator to putting stuff up, which may be its benefit. If you can easily search over that stuff or follow topics of interest, I think it could be interesting, but it's not yet well explored.
Where does blogging go from here, both from the technology point of view as well as from the user point of view?
From the user point of view, it gets easier. Still, it doesn't pass the "mother" test. One of our big focuses is to make it easier and easier; more so than the mainstream user base needs. With the entry of AOL and probably other big portals, it will become more straightforward and easier. It relates to the trends going on; it's just going to be more prevalent.
Are there people you look up to in the blogging community?
Doc Searls. He's a leading light. And tons of people who are much better bloggers than I am, like .
Do you find that there's ever a conflict of interest in updating your personal blog with your job at Google, which can be tight-lipped about what's going on internally?
I'd say it influences what I write; it has for a long time, though, because a lot of what I think about is my business--and stuff I don't necessarily want to be public. Google is under such watchful eyes by so many people that I have to think about what I write carefully.
What effect is blogging having on traditional journalism? Would it ever replace or dilute the value of traditional journalism?
It's certainly having an impact. From a blog reader's perspective, it certainly affects where I go and where I get and read my news. It is a more complex ecosystem now, so for the most part, I think they're complementary; blogs tend to be more about filtering and adding commentary and perspective--but there is some original reporting that's going on there. And the journalists who take advantage of blogs, I think, can do a better job of reporting on their areas.
Finally, what do you like best about working at Google?
Probably just being where everything's happening.