When Google launched the Official Google Blog back in 2004, it started as sort of a ho-hum event. There wasn’t anything particularly gripping, and some wondered if the company should be more edgy with its posts. Since then, Google has launched more than 70 additional official blogs over the years. Some have gotten edgy; a few even have comments, but most important, they’ve turned into an essential communications vehicle for the company.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with Karen Wickre, who aside from her formal title at Google of senior manager, global communications & public affairs, is who I’d best describe as "mother of the blogs." Karen is ultimately responsible for how they all work, and she shared some insight on how Google makes use of blogging. Will the big three of Google — Larry, Sergey and Eric — ever blog? Will comments come to the main Google blog? Will Google’s blogging replace press releases? Read on….
Danny: How would you characterize your role in relation to the blogs?
Karen: I shepherd them. I call myself the managing editor, and I’m the gatekeeper for the new blogs. I’ve been with Google a long time and have worked in publishing a long time, so I can’t help but pay attention to the words — to the ways in which Google is communicating with the world.
Danny: I’ve tended to think of you as mother of the main blog and the various blogs in general. Fair to say?
Karen: Mother of the blog is as fair as anything else. [Former PR staffer] Nate Tyler and I pitched the idea of a blog to our team and got agreement to turn it on in May 2004. This was after we’d announced the IPO, but before we went public.
Initially the agreement was one post per month. There was no opposition to the idea, but our lawyers literally combed over every word, since we were then in our quiet period. I would say do not launch a blog during a quiet period — or if you do, expect to work with a lot of lawyers on every word!
I love editing and making things read better. That’s what an editor does. A blog is a publication, after all. The idea that I could guide product managers and other Googlers to get new topical blogs off the ground, for example, is very appealing.
Danny: Google has so many blogs now. Do you have to read through each post before they go live, or do some of the blogs have more freedom than others?
Karen: While it’s important to have a review, I never want to overwrite what a Googler is saying about their topic or product. All posts are reviewed by a few relevant people on the immediate team, plus a PR person for approval. As a rule, this isn’t labor-intensive or overbearing. We try to encourage original perspectives and stories insofar as company blogs can feature those. We share drafts in Google Docs and do edits there. Again, I try hard not to overwrite or have the team wordsmith to death. That’s not going to get us interesting reads.
We have different categories of blogs, and the type influences how reviews work. There are product blogs [like the Google Reader Blog], developer blogs [like the Google AJAX Search Blog], country-specific blogs [like the Google Australia Blog] and some vertical interest topics [like the Google Public Policy Blog]. All posts go through someone for approval.
The product blogs are the biggest group, and we have lots of people interested in posting and writing up stuff. With the developer blogs, there tends to be much less editing. There’s no sense wordsmithing there. Developers are a natural blog-reading constituency. In some cases, posts are so well-written from the start, and have a PR staffer on the blog team, such as the Google Public Policy blog, that there is very easy collaboration.
Danny: It feels like Google is running more official blogs than most other companies. Any idea if this is the case, if Google is somehow unique in the amount of blogging it is doing?
Karen: We do have more than 70 blogs now. I feel like Google is one of the few places doing this differently. There are other companies with many blogs, but those tend to be unofficial blogs written by individual developers, such as those from Sun, IBM and Microsoft.
Our network of corporate blogs are definitely all company-based, not personal communications, but we aim to have lots of Googlers writing and covering lots of topics in interesting ways.
Of course, in addition to our many official blogs, we’ve also got individuals like Matt Cutts [from Google's web search quality team] posting. We’d love more like those.
For us, the blog platform is a fast way to publish news and notes about Google and to directly reach millions of people. It’s so fast and easy compared to newsletters or, God-forbid, press releases. It is a PR platform, but we try hard to make it not traditional PR-like. That’s why we want our individuals from teams actually "in the trenches" to do the bulk of the writing.
Danny: So are the blogs working well enough that you might give up press releases?
Karen: Press releases are not going away. There are legal requirements and business requirements for press releases, so they serve a function. Down the line, maybe the whole industry will adopt blogs for public communications. This isn’t up to Google to determine, of course. But we’ve never been a company that issues a ton of press releases.
Much more often than a press release or a Google Gram [these are special email alerts sometimes sent to selected reporters], we’ll issue a blog post.
[Note From Danny: Indeed, over the past two years or so, product coverage I've done often revolves around when a blog post will go up announcing it, rather than a press release being issued. Google often will tell me and others, "and the blog post will go out on...."]
Danny: How many readers do the various blogs have?
Karen: The main Google Blog has over 500,000 [this was in mid-August -- now it is nearly 700,000 readers]. After that, the Google China Blog has many readers, as does Google LatLong. Anything to do with geo stuff is always hugely popular!
NOTE: Karen emailed this week that she also tallied up everything at the end of September using a combination of Google Analytics and FeedBurner. Across the blog network, Google had 16.6 million readers in the first 9 months of the year. She also sent this list of the blogs with the most subscribers according to FeedBurner:
- Google Blog: 724,522 subscribers
- Google Reader Blog: 79,553 subscribers
- Orkut Blog [Portuguese]: 45,956 subscribers [Orkut is huge in Brazil, and this is reflected in the fact that the official Orkut blog at blog.orkut.com is in Portuguese, while English posts about Orkut are relegated to en.blog.orkut.com].
- Google Japan Blog: 19,781 subscribers
- Google Webmaster Central Blog: 19,926 subscribers
- Google Code Blog: 19,257 subscribers
- Inside AdSense: 16,301 subscribers
Danny: Is there any attempt to try and coordinate postings across the blogs, what people are blogging about, or set any schedule or number of posts to happen?
Karen: We do coordinate posts when we have news that touches on different areas. For example, a Google.org initiative that ties in to our corporate environmental projects gets posted on two blogs, but each one is different. We don’t duplicate posts. A post that’s about YouTube policy may run on the YouTube blog and another one on Google blog.
We do encourage a focus on more interesting items and a regular frequency and not just an endless stream of a product updates and how-to info. So we always aim for useful information and a good read. We don’t have a quota system. We do encourage frequency, but writing something just to have a post doesn’t work.
Danny: How do you work with those teams to encourage more quality posting?
Karen: First, a team has to propose the blog and really understand what’s required to maintain it. A PR "designated hitter" has to be involved and work with the product team to get a product blog going. We’re all in agreement by the time it’s live. There have been some country blogs where there have been one or two interested people running it. In a smaller market, that would be OK. In a bigger country, we would need more people to contribute.
Danny: Sometimes a post on one of Google’s sub-blogs also runs on the main blog. Is there competition to be "good enough" for that?
Karen: Definitely. Someone will write me and say, "I don’t know if this is big enough for the Google Blog." I have a wide-ranging readership in mind, which is global for the Google Blog, and so I ask if the post reflects the multiplicity of Google enough. Things that are small or a feature update on some product probably won’t go on Google blog unless we want to elevate its visibility.
Danny: First the Google Librarian Blog, then Google Webmaster Central Blog gained comments earlier this year, something some argue is required for a blog to call itself a blog. How has that been going? Will more blogs gain them?
Karen: If the team is going to be vigilant about watching them, sure. We want a good read and a conversation, which means watching for spam comments and way off-topic stuff. Developers generally know how to handle comments, so those are easy blogs to enable comments for.
Danny: How about comments on the main Google Blog?
Karen: We’ve been talking about it for a long time internally. Some of us would like to, even though there’s plenty of concern about the time required to monitor comments. We aren’t out to censor criticism, mind you, but to keep the reading and the exchanges useful and informative takes constant review and ability to reply quickly.
Lots of people even outside of Google tell me this is just too hard to manage. After all, big sites like The Washington Post have had problems with comment abuse. So we continue to watch, and evaluate, for the Google Blog itself. Some of our more targeted blogs with smaller readership following very defined topics have an easier time monitoring to maintain an interesting exchange.
Karen: We may have a few more coming from Google Japan [Google Analytics Blog Japan went up since we talked; over in China, one for webmasters has also been launched]. Perhaps one on Picasa, to cover tips on working with photos [Google Photo Blog went up last month].
Danny: I’ve joked in the past that I can never remember the address of googleblog.blogspot.com for the main official blog, much less google-latlong.blogspot.com for the Google Maps & Earth Blog, Google Lat-Long. Will we get a better address?
Karen: We do want to move to blogs.google.com eventually. We’re still working out how to do it with Blogger (Google’s own blog authoring tool, that it uses for its own blogs).
Danny: Are all the blogs on Blogger? Isn’t Google China Blog not using Blogger?
Karen: We use Blogger wherever it is offered. In China, we don’t offer Blogger as a consumer product, so we publish our various Chinese Google blogs within Blogger and use a third party host.
Danny: Has anyone said they want to use a different blogging platform?
Karen: I don’t think that’s ever come up. Googlers with their own individual blogs can use whatever they want [Matt Cutts uses WordPress, for example]. But we want to showcase Blogger as much as we can.
Danny: How about the Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin blogging, or Google CEO Eric Schmidt?
Karen: The big three? I don’t know. They’re so busy. We’d certainly accommodate if they wanted to. They do, however, appreciate our blogs. I think they appreciate the "direct to you" approach. I’ve worked with them on a few of the posts that are essentially statements. These are a nice way to state our position so that reporters can work from it directly. It also becomes our standing statement on something. That’s been nice for us in a few instances where we’d never put out a press release.
The Google bombing phenomena is an example of this. I think it was almost two years ago, we put out an explanation of what this thing was. That has had huge legs in the blogosphere. People have pointed to it, linked to it and said "Here’s the definitive statement on this thing."
Danny: What’s are the most popular posts you’ve done?
Karen: Anything to do with Google Earth and Google Book Search has a lot of readers. And our funny bits on the main Google Blog, like the explanation about the Valentine’s Day doodle or 100 pounds of Silly Putty.
NOTE: Karen has since sent me this comprehensive list:
- Strawberries are red, stems are green, Feb. 14, 2007: 226,131 pageviews [Official Google Blog]
- Pré-visualização da Reestilização: Simplicidade Fiel, Aug. 24, 2007: 117,507 pageviews [Orkut Blog]
- An Update on Google Video Feedback, Aug. 20, 2007: 111,967 pageviews [Official Google Blog]
- Build your own Google homepage, Feb. 13, 2005: 103,701 pageviews [Official Google Blog]
- Doing the Shuffle, June 22, 2007: 80,811 pageviews [Google Reader Blog]
- "Go Go (Reader) Gadget, April 6, 2007: 72,252 pageviews [Google Reader Blog]
- Discover your links, Feb. 5, 2007: 62,985 pageviews [Google Webmaster Central Blog]
- A quick word about Googlebombs, Jan. 25, 2007: 62,640 pageviews [Google Webmaster Central Blog]
- 日本語の Google Earth, Sept. 14, 2006: 61,953 pageviews [Google Japan Blog]
- Breaking up isn’t hard to do, Dec. 18, 2006: 60,229 pageviews [Google Reader Blog]
- Speaking of Summer, Feb. 15, 2007: 35,652 pageviews [Google Code Blog]
- Announcing Tesseract OCR: Aug. 30, 2006: 30,536 pageviews [Google Code Blog]
- Google releases patches that enhance the manageability and reliability of MySQL, April 23, 2007: 29,339 pageviews [Google Code Blog]
- Introducing video units, Oct. 8, 2007: 17,197 pageviews [Inside AdSense]
- Get inline, Aug. 21, 2007: 16,272 pageviews [Inside AdSense]
Looking for more about Google and blogging? Last year, Karen did an hour-long podcast on working on the blog you’ll find here. Also see 10 Google Feeds You Should Subscribe To on how to keep up on everything from all Google blogs, if you want.