Thursday, March 31, 2011

An idea that's strictly for the birds

“You know what would be funny?” Sergey asked me five days before April Fools’ 2002. I hoped he was going to say, “Soul Search,” the joke I had written up and given to him the day before. It was about searching the sum total of a person’s existence to provide answers only he or she would know.

“Pigeons,” Sergey said with a flat declarative tone, tinged with traces of his native Russian. “Pigeons would be funny.”

Pigeons were an ongoing joke among our engineers. Gmail creator Paul Bucheit had once brought up their ability to sort and classify different items and another engineer suggested that pigeons could detect porn in our results, though that might lead to a lot of horny pigeons. Sergey wanted our April Fools joke to be about that. He offered to help. He kept an eye out for pigeons on his window sill and called me when some appeared. He suggested we put food on a keyboard so we could take pictures of them pecking.

PigeonRank” turned into one of the most enjoyable assignments I undertook at Google. I filled the copy with horrendous puns and geek references, mocked our competitors for using inferior “birds of prey, brooding hens and slow-moving waterfowl to do their relevance rankings,” parodied our resistance to spam “including images of bread crumbs, bird seed and parrots posing seductively in resplendent plumage,” and twisted the operant conditioning research of B. F. Skinner to make it seem that pigeons could execute complex tasks such as revising the Abatements, Credits and Refunds section of the national tax code.

Despite one engineer’s annoyance that it took too long to become clear the page was a joke and therefore wasted peoples’ time, most Googlers came away amused. Dennis Hwang, the Google Doodler worked up some very data intensive charts and webmaster Karen White laid everything out as if it were an actual explanation of our technology. Sergey was satisfied.

There were no complaints when PigeonRank went up on the homepage Sunday night at 9 P.M., despite more than three hundred and fifty thousand page views. The president of the B. F. Skinner Foundation sent us a personal note of appreciation for the twenty thousand visits our page drove to their site.

My favorite response however, came from the engineers at “an anonymous startup” who gushed about PigeonRank and said it made them all want to join Google’s staff. The “non-quantifiable” elements of our brand – humor and personality - had attracted the attention of engineers and made our company seem a desirable place to work. I wondered if that worked both ways - if talking about our engineers could build our brand among those not technically inclined. I would explore that idea more fully a couple of years later with a recruitment campaign that included the Google Labs Aptitude Test and a billboard that got quite a bit of attention. The results of that campaign were mixed, but you'll have to read about that in IFL.

It's late and I'm headed to bed. I want to get a good night's sleep so I'll be sharp enough to avoid getting suckered tomorrow, when the Internet will be even more full of deceit and misdirection than usual. And that's saying something.

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