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Google understands what you're asking, will answer all your questions

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Google is building a lot of India-specific innovations in areas such as search, local languages and translations and is finding them relevant for the global markets. A lot of these works, especially related to regional languages and translations, are being driven by teams in India, especially in Bengaluru, says Ben Gomes, senior vice president, Search & Assistant, Google. 

“When we work in a place like India, we learn lessons that could be applied the rest of the world. The things that we are building here have been (created) for the world,” said Gomes, who joined Google in 1999 and is one of the key engineers behind the tech giant’s search engine.

One such innovation carried out by the Bengaluru team is a cricket tracker. “No doubt cricket is very popular in the country, but it turns out that it matters for the world too… It was used in the last World Cup and was a wonderful experience. I've been using it myself. You can find statistics about your favourite players, and so on,” added Gomes.

The company is looking to expand its Bengaluru office and it is growing in the area of search and assistant. “Because there is a lot of talent here and also the people over here will see the problems first-hand and come up with solutions and understand things that work and that don’t work. For many reasons, Bengaluru would end up becoming a more important place for us,” said Gomes, who is one of the early employees of Google, when it was still a search engine start-up competing with players such as Excite, Yahoo and AltaVista. 

Prior to joining Google, Gomes, a PhD in computer science from UC Berkeley, worked with Sun Microsystems in the US. Born in Tanzania and raised in Bengaluru, Gomes heard about Google from his friend Krishna Bharat, the inventor of Google News, and both of them joined the firm in the same week. The two had studied together as high-school friends at St Joseph's Boys' High School in Bengaluru. Gomes’ early responsibility at Google was scaling up PageRank, the core algorithm used to measure the importance of webpages so they could be ranked in results.

According to Steven Levy’s book <i>In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives</i>, Gomes is one of the “original search rock stars,” who once showed a visitor something he was working on called “Search-as-You-Type.” Other internal names for it were “psychic” and “Miss Cleo,” in tribute to a television fortune-teller, according to the book. It said, this feature enables search to start delivering results even before a user finish typing the query. The book says that he started typing “finger shoes”--the term that people often use to describe the kind of footwear Sergey Brin (Google co-founder) often sports, rubberized slippers with individual sleeves that fit toes the way “gloves fit your fingers.” Gomes hadn’t finished typing the second word before the page filled with links and ads, confidently assuming that he wanted information, and maybe a buying opportunity, involving “Vibram Five Fingers, the barefoot alternative,” according to the book. “It’s a weird connection between your brain and the results,” said Gomes, in Steven Levy’s book. Google later introduced this product as “Google Instant” in September 2010. 

A lot has changed since then, such as the area of speech recognition which is getting better and “machine learning” is playing a key role in that, says Gomes. It now understands different accents unlike only American and British in the past. “The other day, I was in a cab and the driver who was a Somali had quite a heavy accent. And I noticed he was talking to his phone to ask a question. I said, ‘so it works for you? He said ‘yes, people don't understand me but Google does’,” said Gomes. “It’s not perfect yet… But I think what that enables us to do is to reach people for whom typing is not natural and may not be feasible.”

Indeed ‘voice and video’ is defining the new internet user behaviour and taking the centrestage in a country like India. There has been 270 per cent growth in voice searches and 400 per cent growth in Hindi voice searches year-on-year, according to Google estimates.

New users are making the internet go ‘local’ or vernacular. India will hit 650 million Internet users by 2020, of which 62 per cent willl be Indic (Indian languages) users. There has been 10x growth in local language queries over the past two years. Google says about 95 per cent of video consumption is in Indian languages and there has been 8x growth in consumption of Indic videos over English.

Gomes, however, says that one of the big challenges in India is a lot of people are coming online faster compared to the content that has already been created. And this is different from what happened in many other countries. 

“There is a need to create much more content. So we are looking to have an ecosystem developed for creating it because people are looking for it,” said Gomes. “As more content becomes available, our job is to surface it and make it available...As people satisfy their information needs, they begin to use the web more.”

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