Saturday, September 20, 2008

Improving Lives Through Search

One of the most common questions I'm asked when I talk to people about building products and services in Indian languages is, "Why?" The unspoken thought behind the question: those who don't know English in India are dealing with more basic sorts of problems - web search is a luxury that can have only tangential impact in their lives.

I beg to differ.

One of the most powerful features of the web is the democratization of access to information. With the web, consumers can be free of value-extracting middlemen and brokers of information. With the web, consumers can reduce information asymmetry. That isn't a luxury - it's a powerful tool to improve lives.

Imagine a sick child, and parents who have no easy access to medical care. The web can yield information to understand symptoms and help parents provide basic treatment. Imagine a bright school student who attends a poorly-run and managed school that will ill-prepare her for college and the job market. If this student could access educational content online, it could transform her life prospects.

Search can improve lives. And it helps those people most who have the least access to alternative sources of information - typically those lower down in the socio-economic ladder.

One of the things I like to do is to read Google's customer testimonials from time to time. I've reproduced a few below. This isn't a pitch for Google - you can replace "Google" with the more generic "search" and the message is equally powerful.

Message from: Abigail

"Google helped me discover that my daughter's strange medical problems are part of a rare genetic syndrome that most of her doctors had never heard of. Her doctors diagnosed her after I brought them the information, and my discovery helped her cardiologist diagnose another patient with the same syndrome. Because of my daughter's new diagnosis, we have uncovered other dangerous but treatable problems that we wouldn't have known about until they caused her serious damage. So, I'm very grateful to the people at Google who made all of this possible. Thank you."

Message from: Ann

"I just wanted to let you know that Google may well have saved my life. My sons and I were walking home from having eaten out. A half block from my house, I felt this pressure building in my chest. Immediately, I thought, 'heart attack' and ran through how I'd been feeling that the day (I had been nauseated). My first thought was, 'confirm suspicions,' and immediately, upon arriving home, I went to Google and typed in 'heart attack.' I kept thinking, 'you only have minutes...' I found a site that listed symptoms. Indeed, I was having a heart attack. I was at the Albany fire station within minutes. Five baby aspirin later, and a few squirts of nitro and I was in the ambulance on my way to the hospital. The good news is, I have no residual damage. My heart is back to normal. Thank you for providing the Google search engine. I'm sure my recovery was complete because of the speed within which I was able to get help."

Message from: Laura

"Last year my daughter, who was a senior in high school, was afraid of failing her math final. I did a search on Google and came up with more than one method of explaining the formulas...She passed the final and ended up with a B in the class instead of a C. "