Search Is Only at 5% of Its Potential, Google Exec Tells Cannes

Nikesh Arora says tech innovation is about to surge forward

CANNES, France—For all Google's accomplishments in the 16 years since its founding, the tech giant feels it has barely scratched the surface of its potential, even in a core area like search.

Google CBO Nikesh Arora

"We believe search is only about 5 percent of where it should be," Google Chief Business Officer Nikesh Arora told Cannes Lions attendees today.

However, Arora believes Google—along with the tech industry in general—is about to see a massive surge in innovation thanks to two key factors: the standardization of mobile platforms (namely iOS and Android) and the global scope of digital connection.

As more devices are able to work together on similar platforms and in real time, the result will be a huge pool of resources that's barely being tapped today.

"Imagine if there was a way all 1,500 smartphones in this room could come together and do something big," Arora told festival attendees, "like power a spaceship."

When it comes to Google, such a scenario doesn't even qualify as science fiction anymore. Arora presented the company's recent high-profile advancements in self-driving cars, global Internet access via the Project Loon network of WiFi balloons and the wearable digital interface of Google Glass.

Each ambitious project is a result of Google's "Think 10X" philosophy, Arora said. Employees are encouraged to shoot for dramatic improvement rather than gradual iterations.

"If you set out to improve something by 10 times, you're not going to be happy with 2 percent or 5 percent," he said. "You're not going to be happy with doubling, tripling."

In terms of search, Google's focus for exponential growth is in mobile, where the company feels it is still in a relatively rudimentary stage. To illustrate the next phase of search, Arora showed a video of mobile users holding up their phones and asking questions like, "When is this restaurant open?", "What church is this?" and (while looking at San Francisco's Coit Tower) "How tall is this?" Google's app uses a combination of location data and camera image information to both identify the landmark and answer the specific question.

Similarly, Google is confident in the potential for Glass, an icon of the wearable tech trend and a lightning rod for debate about the practical implications of smartphone technology being used at eye level.

To help mainstream the idea of Glass as an everyday, customizable device and not a creepy piece of eyewear/spyware, Google's beachside expo area at Cannes includes a photo booth where festival attendees can try on different styles of Glass and share the images with their social media networks.

In his presentation, Arora also featured the August 2013 case study of "Glass Explorer" Alex Blaszczuk, who used the device to go camping with friends for the first time since a 2011 auto accident en route to a similar getaway left her paralyzed from the chest down.

By using Glass' hands-free features, "I gain some of that confidence back that I lost in the accident," Blaszczuk says in the video, "and that doesn't go away."

Such impactful uses of Google's technology are the things "that motivate us to get up in the morning," Arora said.

"For us, technology really becomes real when it saves people's lives and impacts people's lives."

On that note, Arora closed his presentation to Cannes by encouraging all the attendees to look for the potential of social change in the work they do for agencies and brands, then "try and save the world."

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