Behind the scenes at Google Israel – creators of Google Suggest, Live Results… and fans of Settlers of Canaan

google sign
google sign

On our recent visit to Israel, we were invited to be the special guests at Google’s R&D centre in Haifa. The city, 90km north of Tel Aviv is shaking off its reputation as the “Sleeping Beauty” of the country, housing many cutting-edge research facilities of tech giants such as Intel, Microsoft, Yahoo and Apple. And, of course, a certain search company that you might have heard of. So what goes on in Google Israel? And why did the Big G decide to set up base here?

google sign

google outside

Photo: Anna Lasker

Google’s R&D centre sits in a Art Deco-style building in the Matam Advanced Technology Centre, on the outskirts of the ancient port city of Haifa. Its neighbours include other hi-tech big-hitters such as Qualcomm, Intel, medical tech group Insightec and Yahoo.

The search giant opened up its doors for our delegation to explain some of the research and development that goes on from its six-year-old base in Israel.

Yaniv Leviathan, Software Engineer at Google Israel explained to us why Google set up base here: “We started in 2006 in Haifa and Tel Aviv – there’s a good talent base here, because of the Technion [Israel Institute of Technology]

“The offices here are engineering offices – a lot of the things we do here are central to the core of what Google does, in search and knowledge – we have a high emphasis on new technologies and innovation and we have full ownership of them, so it feels like a startup. We have another office in Tel Aviv, so combined we have over 200 employees, soon to be expanding.”

The neat new Google features that didn’t come from Silicon Valley

So what Google products can we thank the Israeli centres for? Leviathan explains that the biggest concentration of their work is on “Search and Knowledge”. For instance, the Israeli base is responsible for Google Suggest (now known as Google Auto Complete) the tool that has made your search quicker and smarter by autofilling as you type, based on a number of factors, including popular queries, often with results that make the world seem a smaller, funnier place:

google suggest

google presentation

Also Live Results work is based in Israel– the offering up of the most up-to-date, “live” information linked to your search, such as weather, sports, flight status etc.

Leviathan himself works on “Structured Data” – he explains: “Other than search, Google also looks at knowledge, in order to understand stuff about the world. My group tries to understand the connections between things.”

And let’s not forget unseen Networking nous: “None of you can see what these guys do – they just make it work fast. We have one of the biggest networks in the work so we make sure the information is transferred quickly between these clusters. And a big part of this is done in Israel.”

google meta

And don’t forget Bob…

Another feature that you might have seen popping up in Google Labs for Gmail recently is the “Don’t forget Bob” or “Got the wrong Bob” feature. “If you have a group of friends, and you usually write to them together, then one time you forget one of them, Gmail will ask you if you’ve forgotten the other guy, or if you type in a similar name, but wrong address it’ll ask you if you have the right person.” Fortunately, I don’t have any friends called Bob…

Mapping natural disasters and remembering the Holocaust

But it not just all about emailing the right Robert – Google is keen to stress that it also puts this massive access to the world’s data to good use. There is now a feature that will offer up shelter maps and emergency information when specific search is queried (which Google found it is during any times of emergency such as Hurricane Irene and Japanese Disaster.

yad vashem

One other project with an especial resonance here is working with Yad Vashem – the project that aims to archive the Holocaust through personal documents, diaries and photographs. Google worked with the vast physical archive to bring this project online, so it’s now possible to search via specific names or families to see if there are any accounts of their plight. Information that might all too easily be lost to the annals of time and deterioration otherwise.

This began life as one of Google’s “20 per cent projects” (where workers get to spend one-fifth of their time on their own work) and the methodology was later implemented on Google’s famed digitisation of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

google cup

The danger of the “Google 15”

We were then treated to a tour of the working hub – and swanky kitchen – of Google Haifa (no pictures allowed here, sadly, but we can tell you there were beach-hut style meeting rooms, swing tyres and all the overly funky breakout spaces that you’d expect from the company, as well as lots of boxes of the German tactical board game Settlers of Canaan).

“We never like to be too far away from food at Google,” says Leviathan. “which explains the ‘Google 15’ [the famous adage that new employees at Google gain 15 pounds due to the abundance of free snacks]. Fortunately, there’s also a gym: “Well, I’ve only been once, but I’ve heard it’s good…”