What Would Google Do?: Why You Should Embrace Being Wrong

January 20, 2017

Slate this week featured an interview with Google's research director, Peter Norvig, as part of its series The Wrong Stuff—interviews with people about "the role of error in their lives and their fields." This approach feels particularly apropos this week, since Google announced plans to stop development on Wave as a standalone product. Kathryn Schulz's opening gambit:

I'm interested in the way that attitudes about error vary across professional cultures—doctors typically think about error very differently than pilots and politicians and so forth—as well as across the cultures of different companies, even within the same field. How would you characterize the overall attitude toward error at Google?

Norvig, we learn, along with the other executives and engineers at Google, embraces error:

If you're a politician, admitting you're wrong is a weakness, but if you're an engineer, you essentially want to be wrong half the time. If you do experiments and you're always right, then you aren't getting enough information out of those experiments. You want your experiment to be like the flip of a coin: You have no idea if it is going to come up heads or tails. You want to not know what the results are going to be.

There's a lot of interesting stuff in this interview, but here are a few things that stood out:

  • Norvig believes Google's biggest mistake has been "not embracing social aspects":

Facebook came along and has been very successful, and I may have dismissed that early on. There was this initial feeling of, "Well, this is about real, valid information, and Facebook is more about celebrity gossip or something." I think I missed the fact that there is real importance to having a social network and getting these recommendations from friends. I might have been too focused on getting the facts and figures—to answer a query such as "What digital camera should I buy?" with the best reviews and facts, when some people might prefer to know "Oh, my friend Sally got that one; I'll just get the same thing." Maybe something isn't the right answer just because your friends like it, but there is something useful there, and that's a factor we have to weigh in along with the others.

    • Schulz asks what Norvig has personally been wrong about, and he responds: "how fast things change." This reminds me of a recent piece on KurzweilAI called "The Law of Accelerating Returns," in which Ray Kurzweil states that "Today, in accordance with the common wisdom, everyone expects continuous technological progress and the social repercussions that follow. But the future will be far more surprising than most observers realize: few have truly internalized the implications of the fact that the rate of change itself is accelerating" (emphases mine). (This article looked fascinating but I had a serious TLDR moment with it; talk about infinite scroll.)


  • Schulz notes that PageRank (she spells it "page rank" – how cute!) "uses consensus as a stand-in for credibility." I was happy to see Norvig concede that the majority isn't always right:

Yeah, that's always a problem. One way we try to counter that is diversity. We haven't figured out any way to get around majority rules, so we want to show the most popular result first, but then after that, for the second one, you don't want something that's almost the same as the first. You prefer some diversity, so there's where minority views start coming in.

What about you? What's your own – and your business's – philosophy on failure? Here are three good reason I can think of to embrace failure:

  1. When you're wrong on the Internet, you can (usually) fix it. OK, the Internet never forgets – but one of the great things about working on the web is that you can often go back and correct your mistakes. You can update old blog posts with new information, for example, or go back and adjust the title of an article that is getting lots of traffic from an unexpected keyword.
  2. Being wrong is often a path to being right. Schulz says that at The Onion "they kill 30 or 40 pretty funny headlines in order to generate one really funny one." In other words, sometimes you don't know the first version of something is wrong until you find a version that's righter. This process of iteration can be used to come up with better blog post titles, better subject lines in your newsletters, better product names…
  3. Fear of being wrong makes growth impossible. Let's say you know a certain kind of landing page layout will always achieve a 3% conversion rate. You're pretty happy with that rate, so you might be reluctant to deviate from the formula and risk going lower. But if you never test out other designs, you could miss the change that pushes your conversion rate up to 5%.

Thanks to Slate and Schulz for reminding us of the value of failing. No thanks to them for getting "The Right Stuff" by New Kids on the Block lodged firmly in my skull.

Internet Marketing Highlights This Week

The NYT reported that Google and Verizon are in talks to destroy net neutrality, then cackle maniacally all the way to the bank. However, both Google and Verizon deny it. (Wouldn't be the first time the NYT was wrong.)

While we're casting aspersions at the pillars of journalism, Marketing Pilgrim's Frank Reed says the Wall Street Journal is using scare tactics to alarm readers about privacy and advertising.

Did you see our big fat infographic on the history of search engines? Coincidentally, PPC Blog also launched an infographic this week about the history of search.

Sherice Jacobs of KISSmetrics points out four "ugly" websites that still make millions.

Seth Godin says the web is "the first mass marketing medium ever that isn't supported by ads."

Dr. Pete has a list of tips for connecting with "your fellow humans in person" when you go to a conference.

The Vertical Measures blog interviews Alan Bleiweiss about his favorite tools for conducting SEO site audits, the most important organic ranking factors, recommended reading for SEO newcomers and more.

Have a great weekend, folks!

Photo credit: Pretty/Ugly Design

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.