The week Danny Sullivan started working at Google’s headquarters in Mountain, California, he felt like someone was going to throw him off campus.
He noticed a handful of double takes as he walked around unattended and would half-jokingly start meetings by assuring other participants of his good intentions.
The bafflement arose because before he joined Google last October, he was a sometimes-critical outsider who had written stories about the company for nearly two decades. As a journalist, his trips to the Googleplex would include a prominent visitors’ badge and a public-relations handler at his side.
“It all felt very strange,” Sullivan told CNBC of his early days inside the company.
In hindsight, his appointment seems well-timed: In the months since Sullivan took on his role, the tech industry has faced increased scrutiny over how its algorithms affect the public. Critics have lambasted Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter for exacerbating filter bubbles, serving consumers fake news or conspiracy theories, and failing to adequately support the creators they rely on.
Google’s search algorithms, in particular, have produced a string of high-profile mistakes in recent months. Part of Sullivan’s job is to explain those errors. He’s responsible for bridging the gap between Google’s engineers and the outside world and, ultimately, using feedback from both sides to make its systems work better.
“I’m really part of trying to improve search now — a direct part of it,” he said. “That’s the most rewarding thing.”
His search career started in the mid-90s, when Yahoo owned the space and Google didn’t even exist. Sullivan was enthralled by the emerging web and quit his job in newspapers to join a friend’s web development company. He wrote his first guide to search engines in 1996.
The next year, he founded his own content and conference business, Search Engine Watch. At the first search marketing conference ever, in 1999, he hosted Google’s relatively unknown co-founders, and Sergey Brin infamously said that the company didn’t believe in — or even need to deal with — webspam. (In the following decades, this idea would be thoroughly disproven.)
Sullivan sold Search Engine Watch and eventually co-founded Third Door Media in 2006, where he continued to track industry changes and try to demystify search through the publication Search Engine Land.
His extensive experiences describing the nuances of Google’s ranking algorithms turned him into one of the greatest outside experts on how the company’s search works.
So, when he announced in June 2017 that he had decided to take some time off, it caught the attention of company higher-ups.
Less than two months later, he got a call from Ben Gomes, Google’s vice president of search, asking him if he was really retired.
Gomes had a pitch, Sullivan recalls: The company wanted him to come onboard to help Google be more transparent and better communicate with the public about search. Sullivan told Gomes he needed some time to think it over — he’d been fantasizing about starting a “Star Wars” blog — but, ultimately, Google won him over.
“My favorite thing to write about search were the issues of it and how it impacts people,” Sullivan said. “This was a great opportunity to do the kinds of things that I would have done as a journalist, but in a different way, while seeing things from the inside.”
Almost immediately, Sullivan had some glaring search failures to account for.
In the wake of a tragic shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in early November, Google highlighted wrong information about the suspect, prominently promoting tweets with dubious claims about his background.
Sullivan responded to the situation on Twitter, outlining how it happened and promising that Google was taking the issue seriously and testing changes to how it ranked tweets. He responded frankly to questions about hiring human editors, winning points with those accustomed to slow, boilerplate responses from Google.
Since that first test of his position, Sullivan has dealt with errors related to incorrect search content, incomplete answers on Google’s smart speaker and offensive autocomplete predictions. Most recently, a Google search showing Nazism as an ideology of the California Republican Party whipped up conservative fervor, with GOP leaders accusing the search giant of bias.
In most of these cases, the problem wasn’t only Google’s failure to provide accurate information but the public’s distrust of how the process works. A big part of Sullivan’s job is convincing people that Google’s errors are due to algorithmic mistakes instead of purposeful meddling by employees.
“My personal mission statement is to provide reasonable explanations as issues come up,” Sullivan said. “Not as an excuse but to help people understand why something happened. If something has gone wrong, we explain why it went wrong. Otherwise, people assume things that didn’t happen. It’s about taking ownership over an issue that comes up, understanding how we’re going to improve it, and then actually improving it.”
It doesn’t always work.
Sullivan tweets about Google through his personal account as well as from the Search Liaison brand and quickly learned that his explanations sometimes fall on deaf ears. He tries not to get frustrated when users dismiss his attempts or cling to rebukes about Google being evil or biased against certain groups.
“I always lean towards trying to engage and be proactive if I can,” he says. “In some cases, people are going to have their beliefs and you just can’t change them.”
In other cases, he has to deal with a peculiar reverse deja vu: As a journalist, he occasionally railed against the company for vagueness, but now that he has all the inside information, he has found that he can only say so much publicly.
One of his long-time colleagues, Barry Schwartz, says that the new boundary can be funny.
“I’ll say something about Google doing something wrong or not being as transparent as it should be, and he has to say ‘Trust me — I know what’s going on on the inside. We’re doing this for good reasons, but I can’t tell you more,'” Schwartz said. “Of course, he would have pushed the same way if he was in my shoes.”
Sullivan says that pushing is still a big part of his job. Because he works directly within the search organization, engineers and product managers will ask him for input. In turn, he prods those teams for more information about their decision-making.
Before he joined Google, for example, he was a vocal critic of Google’s “featured snippets,” the answers that often appear in a box at the top of search, calling for the company to limit the feature’s use. Now, he says he has “a better understanding internally why they’re important” but has also advocated for improvements, like showing multiple snippets or indicating when Google is serving a near-match instead of an exact answer.
Google knows that featured snippets will never be 100 percent perfect but has been trying these new ways to improve them, Sullivan said.
“Everyone wants to see progress,” he said. “The people who are bothered by an issue do and we do. No one wants to have the same problems come up over and over again.”
When Sullivan announced his appointment, the search marketing industry drew comparisons to Matt Cutts, an outspoken engineer who used to run Google’s webspam team. Before Cutts took a leave from Google in 2014, he was both revered and slammed for his updates about the search engine’s ever-changing algorithms. (Cutts left permanently in 2016.)
The parallel isn’t exact: Cutts had a technical background, focused closely on search engine optimization issues, and corresponded more with industry experts than the general public.
Still, Sullivan says he hopes to bring the same kind of human touch and calm voice that Cutts was known for; a salve for people who are used to dealing with attribution-less statements or faceless forums.
“The saying I like to use is, it’s easy to hate a faceless monolith, but it’s harder to hate a person,” Cutts told CNBC. “And putting a human face on search — someone that you can talk to, complain to, ask questions of — I think that is critical.”
Cutts and Sullivan have known each other for years — Sullivan actually made Cutts’ Twitter account for him in 2007 as part of an April Fools’ joke about a fictitious conference celebrating “Mattness” called CuttsCon. Cutts, who permanently left Google in late 2016, is now hopeful that Sullivan’s hire is a signal of Google’s willingness to take feedback and listen to users.
Paul Edmondson, CEO of HubPages, echoes that idea. HubPages, which sold to another content company earlier this year, was something of a poster child for how tweaks to Google’s search rankings could tank a business. Edmondson says he respected Sullivan’s work as a journalist and hopes to see him help shape Google’s future policies.
“I think Danny always wanted to hold Google accountable in the right ways,” Edmonson said. “I would gladly trade a journalist covering search for someone inside of Google who has empathy for people creating content for the web and who has the greater good of the ecosystem in mind.”
After all, as publishers cede power to tech platforms, Google gains it. The search engine has 90 percent worldwide search engine market share, according to StatCounter. Increasingly, its algorithms decide what news we get, businesses we visit and people we vote for. There’s been a growing call for “algorithmic accountability” as people demand more transparency about the “black box” systems shape their lives.
To Sullivan, one of the biggest issues ahead may be trying to ensure that people understand Google’s strengths, but also its weaknesses.
“We’re not a truth engine. One of the big issues that we’re pondering is how to explain that our role is to get you authoritative, good information, but that ultimately people have to process that information themselves,” he said. “We can give you information, but we can’t tell you the truth of a thing.”
Sullivan will probably write a post about that someday. But if he does, the trick will be getting people to believe it.