Google High

A call from Google is a big deal. For tech startups, it could mean a lucrative buyout; for local governments, it could promise high-paying New Economy jobs. The list of industries pining for such a call is understandably long, but it typically doesn't include waste management.

So when Jean Brown, communications director for the nonprofit Recycle Ann Arbor, answered the phone to find a Google representative on the other end, she was as surprised as she was pleased.

"When they called we were really excited," she says, laughing. "Let's just put it that way."

Over the next few months Recycle Ann Arbor would become one of five nonprofits chosen to participate in a unique program designed by Google's Ann Arbor office.

It worked like this: Google, fresh to the community, sent pairs of "block captains" out to greet local organizations. During a visit to the local Community High School, one pair found that the school offered weekly courses designed to teach students vocational skills. Sensing an opportunity, the "Googlers" offered to build a class around AdWords, the company's main advertising tool.

Susette Jaquette, the teacher in charge of the Community program, was thrilled. As a public magnet school, Community has felt the budgetary pinches common to Michigan schools. "We're always looking for new things," she says. "This (class) is certainly something that could energize our students and our economy."

AdWords is the mechanism behind Google's "sponsored links." It's the reason why, when you search for, say, "Detroit Concerts," ads from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Ann Arbor's Summer Festival and appear on the side of your browser window.

It's also where most of Google's billions come from. AdWords clients generally pay Google a few cents per click, and with more than seven billion searches  performed each month, this adds up quickly. (In 2006, about $10.5 billion of Google's $10.6 billion earnings came from advertising).

The Google instructors based their syllabus on the AdWords online learning center, which is usually used to train paying clients. They adapted the pace of the class to fit the students' weekly 90-minute class schedule.

"Usually a couple people would present new information for about an hour of the class, then you had a half hour to say, 'All right, how are we now going to apply these new tools to the accounts you're working with?'" says Lindsay Stradley, one of the Google instructors.

The students then paired with local nonprofits to pass on what they'd learned. With Recycle Ann Arbor, the students focused on keywords emphasizing the ease of recycling.

Results came quickly. Within just a few months, Recycle Ann Arbor received a call from a Detroit Free Press photographer, who had found their sponsored link while searching for an Earth Day photo feature.

"If you do any sort of search for the kind of keywords (the students) included in their account, Recycle Ann Arbor is, if not at the very top, really close, which means they've got it," says Stradley.

The digital age

There is perhaps no surer mark of society's shift from the Industrial to Information Age than the rise of Google and the nearly contemporaneous fall of Ford. Both defined the notion of progress for their age: the latter with assembly lines, the former with algorithms.

A notable difference is that where Ford used the similarity of its workers to its advantage, transforming them into replaceable cogs, Google exploits individual differences. For instance, most Google engineers are encouraged to spend one day per week on a project that interests them — a principle which carried over to the success of the AdWords class.

Where Ford attempted to build a community around their organization — an idea inherent in the notion of "Fordism" — Google recognizes their success depends largely on the pre-existing character of the community. To this end, their outreach programs are flexible. The bureaucratic obstacles to the development of the AdWords program were, on the whole, light.

"I think there is this environment where people are encouraged to share their ideas," says Bryan Herzog, another of the AdWords instructors. "I didn't feel we had to do a whole lot of selling."

A core tenet of the Google philosophy is that, in order to improve a space, one must first understand it. Because the needs of Community High School and the specialties of the Ann Arbor office are unique to this area, so is the program.

"There's definitely a general Google culture that spans across offices, but within that there's a lot of autonomy to decide how we operate," says Stradley. "It's not like in each place you will do these things in order to be a good citizen. It's one of hundreds of ways."

The golden touch

For the moment it appears Google can do no wrong. Whatever they touch — search engines, e-mail, maps, word processors — turns, Midas-like, into gold. It's nearly impossible to navigate the web without encountering the seductive convenience of at least one of their products. Last year, their revenues were double Somalia's GDP.

Still, there was a time when similar claims could have been made of Ford. But as ages wane so do the reign of their captains (already, privacy concerns and missed revenue marks suggest that Google may have hit its peak). Google's dominance could yet last for decades, but given the volatility of the technology industry (see: Microsoft) it's unlikely to be permanent. Whatever its fate, Google's stay has a lot to teach us.

First, Google's success is proof that this is an age where corporate responsibility means more than PR gloss. As the philanthropy of tycoons like Andrew Carnegie countered the worst crimes of the 19th century robber barons, the Gates and Buffets of the day are ousting the Kenneth Lays and Dennis Kozlowskis.

A frequent criticism of the capitalist engine is that inequality is the fuel that drives success. But as Google's program has shown, this does not mean that all relationships within the system must be exploitative. The AdWords project is entirely symbiotic: The Google team gained important cachet within their community, built lasting team bonds and solidified knowledge of their product while Ann Arbor's Community High gained an innovative class taught by skilled instructors; local nonprofits --who rarely have the money for complex marketing or advertising-- received free publicity and the students learned a marketable skill.

Understandably, it’s hard to find complaints. Brown describes the program as "a gift" and "win-win all around." Jaquette says she hopes it will be institutionalized as a business class within a couple of years.

Still, the possible implications of a corporation moving into traditionally public spheres are worth considering. Public schools are, after all, the realm of the government for a reason.

But for the moment the benefits of the AdWords project appear to far outweigh any future costs. One student, Umer Ansari, says he is considering a career in marketing, though he never thought about it before the class. "Now I kind of like it," he says. "You can sell things anywhere in the world."

Alex Dziadosz is a freelance writer living in Ann Arbor. His previous article for metromode was Good Things Come In Small Packages.


Bryan Herzog - Google Adword instructor

Community High School - Ann Arbor

Linsay Stradley - Google iAdword instructor

Classroom at Community High School

Book recycling at Recycling Ann Arbor (courtesy image)

A sample of Adwords advertising (courtesy image)

Photographs by Alex Dziadosz - All Rights Reserved

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.