Page last updated at 13:41 GMT, Wednesday, 1 February 2006

Google's communications breakdown

By Guto Harri
BBC North America business correspondent

The headquarters of the most popular search engine in the world is a remarkably unimpressive place.

Google's sign outside its Googleplex HQ
Google's base is more industrial than architectural

Mountain View, California, sounds like a glamorous address. But the home of more than 5,000 Google staff is a sprawl of low rise, nondescript buildings on an industrial estate about 20 miles south of San Francisco.

The main building has a novel name - the Googleplex - but there are warehouses in the British Midlands that are more architecturally interesting. Similarly, one spot is known as the "amphitheatre" - but nothing could be less classically inspired or artistically stimulating.

What is striking is the number of very young, geeky-looking people wandering between the buildings. The campus of Stanford university where Larry Page met Sergey Brin is not far away.

College kids

The Googleplex could easily be an extension of that campus, just as Google is the commercial expression of the vision which those two computer scientists had of getting a grip on the internet by inventing their search engine.

Most of the staff look as if they are still at college.

Some jog around. Some are on bikes. Quite a few ride around on yellow motorised scooters - which will no doubt become a craze elsewhere.

But most simply wander around like students, wearing casual clothes, chatting a little anxiously in small groups and glancing at the TV crew in the car park with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion.

"I know, I know", says a more weatherworn face when I tell him that profits have just gone up 82%. "I've made three quarters of a million."

I can't tell if he's joking, but one in five on the payroll here is a millionaire. The boys who started it - still in their early 30s - are worth more than $10bn each.

Fighting shy

Again, that is hard to believe from the site. I once filmed the Lazio football team outside Rome, and was mesmerized by the Ferraris in the car park. A typical premier league team in England packs the car park with Porsches and Aston Martins.

Google's Chinese homepage
Google's move into China has attracted opposition

Here, though, the parking lot is more typical of a secondary school: modest medium-sized family vehicles, usually Japanese, and a high proportion of hybrids. There's the odd jeep and sports car, but they are rare and restrained.

A high proportion of the staff are Asian too. Eavesdrop, and you'll hear many languages.

One youngster rides over on a bike which is far too small for him. He's friendly, but turns out to be a security guard - checking up on us.

Another in more typical bouncer uniform - black bomber jacket and jeans - soon takes up position in the car park corner. She's shy when we try to reassure her that we have no intention of storming the joint.

The senior communications staff are equally shy. Though we've met them in the past, they ignored our e-mails and calls. No-one else has been briefed either - which could explain why an extraordinary 82% rise in income to $372.2 million in the last quarter is viewed on Wall Street as a disappointment.

A few lines from Google's chief executive officer, Eric Schmidt, are released through a press agency stating the obvious.

"We are very pleased with our results for the fourth quarter as we achieved excellent performance across our businesses," he says.

Growing up

Some might imagine that the media blackout means they have something to hide. Others, however, suggest something more prosaic: arrogance.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page
Google's founders are worth billions apiece

There is irony in the sense that an army of computer nerds with a mission to facilitate the transfer of information feels no need to communicate with the outside world.

With Google's shares taking a - rare - beating following the earnings announcement, the Wall Street Journal spelt out a common mood.

"Google's investors may have got a painful lesson about the risks of the company's Warren Buffett-inspired policy of refusing to give earnings guidance," it said, warning that "the risk of nasty surprises" would be high until the company started offering more of a steer on what its performance would turn out to be.

The overall impression on the ground is that Google has got big - but has not yet necessarily matured.

That tallies with its recent policy positions. One day, it takes a defiant stand, refusing to hand over data to the US Justice department. Days later, it's agreeing to censor its searches in China.

Interestingly, having recently been encouraged to look at the good deeds done by the Google Foundation, I read in the latest accounts that there will be no more payments to that charity "for the foreseeable future".

No-one offers an explanation. Surely times aren't too hard for the company to keep up its payments and cling onto its philanthropic ambitions. I wish I could tell you their answer.

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