Google embraces transparency... sort of
Under fire from Wall St. and competitors, king of search promises to be more open, but isn't ready to say exactly how.
By Adam Lashinsky, FORTUNE senior writer

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA (FORTUNE) - Give Google credit for understanding that symbols matter. The company held a press day Wednesday at its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., and guess how it decorated the room? Like a giant newspaper. Care to guess what it said on the newsprint? One word: Google.

The curtains that formed the backdrop of the stage, the tablecloths that covered the tables where the journalists sat ... everything was blanketed in black-and-white newsprint with one word repeated over and over again: Google.

The once-dominant online service has some swell ideas for online networking products. Unfortunately, other companies thought of them first. (Read the column)

Google's (Research) message was clear: We like the press, and we'd really like you to like us back. On a day that offered little news (see below for the nuggets that Google served up), the company that isn't evil offered a glimpse into its soul.

Formalizing a theme it has been quietly pushing for several months now, the company said its new goal is "transparency." Yes, we've been secretive in the past, top Google executives said, but now we want to be more transparent. New communications chief Elliot Schrage even graciously offered to supply story ideas. He seemed to be sincere.

The journalists, many of whom had traveled great distances to hear the Word According to Google, ate up the transparency dish with relish. (Actually, the dish, served in a lovely, sun-splattered courtyard, was all the chicken parmigiana, steamed broccoli and fresh fruit the ink-stained wretches could pile onto their plates. But that's another story.)

Despite a day with only minor product releases and no attention whatsoever paid to financial matters, the press hung on Google's every utterance. Reporters wanted to know if Google would place ads on Google News, its free product that appropriates the work of the very people in the room. No, said Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who pointed out that news organizations love Google because Google drives so much traffic to the news organizations' Web sites.

There were new products. The coolest was Google Trends. Use it to compare search and news volume on two or more topics. (I learned that one of my favorite shows, Grey's Anatomy, is quickly gaining in the zeitgeist on another of my faves, the Sopranos.) Google Gadgets is a new set of onscreen gizmos that looks a lot like some of Apple's recent creations.

Google Co-Op is a clever tool that lets users mandate that their searches include a particular site. For example, searching the name of a restaurant could automatically show what tables are available on a restaurant reservation system. Incremental, but neat. Finally, Google Notebook, due out in mid-May, is an online scratch pad, useful in organizing one's information not only online but onscreen as well.

This isn't the kind of stuff that will add billions to Google's market capitalization, and Google knows it. But it's a perfectly good way to entertain the press while making the top executives available for press scrutiny, even as Google's young founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, display their growing skills at swatting away questions with platitudes.

Under fire on Wall Street for its stagnant stock and in a competitive cat fight with Microsoft (Research) and others, Google promises to open up more. One thing that's clear is that Google's got plenty to say.


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