Watch out: Google is getting personal.
CEO Larry Page emphasized that Google is determined to deliver online experiences tailored to each individual's interests and social circles, an ambitious goal that requires the web giant to learn even more about its users' preferences and personal information.
"Engaging with users, really deeply understanding who they are, and delivering things that make sense for them is really, really important. We're at the early stages of that and Google+ is a big effort," said Page during an earnings call Thursday. "This notion of identity is a deep, deep part of what we're doing and an example of how we can make all our products better by understanding people."
Though Google already knows a great deal about the people who use its services, from what YouTube videos they've watched to whom they email most on Gmail, the web giant still lusts after the treasure trove of personal data Facebook has accumulated over the past eight years -- information about personal relationships, likes, location, favorite brands, photos and more. Google's Google+ social networking site, launched last summer, is Google's bet-the-company effort to fill gaps in its knowledge about users and duplicate Facebook's expansive database. In short, Google's personalization plan depends on you: what you share with Google, what you search on Google, and who you socialize with on Google.
"Today [users] come back to us in a largely unidentified state. We know very little about them and we remember very little about them," said Bradley Horowitz, Google+'s vice president of product, in an interview last year. "The way we think about Google+ is changing this mode of interaction so we actually get to know our users deeply. We understand who they are, what they love, who they know and then reflect that back as value to them, so that all of our services get better when users use their own data in their own services."
Last week, Google unveiled its latest attempt at personalizing the browsing experience, an update to its search results, dubbed "Search Plus Your World," that displays privately shared information side-by-side with publicly available content. The new feature has been met with fierce criticism from pundits and tech companies, which accuse Google of favoring its own services in its search results.
Page responded to critics by countering that Google remained eager to integrate data from other social media companies in its search results, and argued that they have been reticent to share their information with the search giant. He fell back on the familiar Google rhetoric that the company frequently calls up in disputes with other Silicon Valley firms: that Google was the open and all-embracing team player suffering at the hands of closed-off companies that were greedy with their goods.
"I think that with other big companies that work on social data and so on, we've seen a general tendency to put all that data into a walled garden," Page said. "We provide a lot of third party social data in search and we love doing that. We would love to have more. We would love to be able to use more of it but companies have been walling it off."
Page also announced several milestones for Google products. He noted that Google+ has grown to 90 million users, up from 40 million in October, the last time Google shared official statistics on the social networking site. Though the company did not disclose how many active users are on the site, the Google CEO noted that 60 percent of Google+ users "engage" with the site daily, and 80 percent "engage" with the site weekly. He did not specify how the company defines engagement.
Gmail has grown to more than 350 million users, noted Page, and Google's Android software now powers around 250 million devices worldwide.