MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Susan Wojcicki is reminiscing about her old home in Menlo Park, Calif. "It's a very humble house, less than 2,000 square feet," she recalls fondly. A cozy, four-bedroom home — and incredibly historic.
After earning her MBA in 1998, Wojcicki bought 232 Santa Margarita Ave. for about $600,000. She rented the garage to two Stanford students for $1,700 a month to help with the mortgage. The renters: no ordinary slackers, but the Google Guys, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who incubated Google (GOOG) right there.
"It's a good reminder for the company that we did come from a small house, not a fancy house," says Wojcicki.
Her life-changing decision to open her home to Brin and Page did more than just help start the world's most-popular search engine. It also:
- Landed Wojcicki a key early job at Google less than a year after purchasing the home. Today, she's one of its top-ranked executives, overseeing the crucial online advertising business as vice president of product management.
- Introduced a future husband to Wojcicki's younger sister Anne, who recently married Brin on an island in the Bahamas. Google has invested $3.9 million in Anne Wojcicki's biotech start-up, 23andMe.
- Created a cottage industry for the Wojcicki family. Susan Wojcicki's husband, Dennis Troper, is an operations executive at Google. Brother-in-law Gregor (married to middle sister Janet) is a former Googler who worked in the finance department. Mom Esther Wojcicki, a teacher, has consulted for Google on educational issues.
"There are no sets of words that can be used to describe Susan's contribution to the company," says Google CEO Eric Schmidt. "She's historic, in terms of our company's founding. She's also one of those people who thinks very broadly and quickly, and (it's) deceiving because she's so pleasant."
Wojcicki is Google employee No. 18. Her early duties included refining the original Google logo designed by Brin and the overall spare look of the Google home page. She came up with the first of Google's "doodles," the remaking of the logo for holidays and other special events. Her first artistic doodle: an alien lands on Google.
In Google's fledgling days, Wojcicki, a former junior staffer for chipmaker Intel, was in charge of marketing efforts. Brin and Page charged her with spreading the word about Google on a shoestring. Her big idea: stir word-of-mouth by putting Google's search engine all over the Web. She reached out to companies to license Google search for their websites and offered it free to universities.
In 2003, she came up with her multimillion-dollar brainstorm: AdSense.
'A really novel idea'
AdSense is an extension of a program Google had successfully launched in 2002, called AdWords. AdWords offers advertisers sponsored search ads, those little text ads that appear near search results. Advertisers have to pay only if the ads get clicked.
Wojcicki's suggestion: Why not offer these same ads all over the Web, on blogs and websites? Entice Web "publishers" to participate by giving them a portion of the ad revenue. In other words, every time someone clicks on an ad on your site, you get a check.
Here's how the ads are targeted: Let's say you're reading about computers at tech site Engadget. An ad might appear offering special deals at Dell.com. Or, if you're reading an article at a news site about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, you might see an ad for a local criminal-defense law firm.
"It was a really novel idea at the time to serve ads that were targeted dynamically" to a specific Web page, says Wojcicki, sitting in a conference room at the "Googleplex" company headquarters.
"People were saying, 'This is a sports site, so we'll serve a sports ad.' And we were saying, 'No. We can actually look at the page in real time and figure out what this page is about.' "
Wojcicki's idea turned into a runaway smash. Google doesn't break out revenues from AdSense and AdWords. But the company recently reported quarterly profit of $1 billion, virtually all derived from both ad programs.
Thousands of tiny entrepreneurs make substantial livings by hosting Ads by Google links at their websites. "More people make money from AdSense than any other vehicle on the Web," says Jennifer Slegg, who runs JenSense, a blog devoted to AdSense. "There are many, many AdSense millionaires."
AdSense "basically turned the Web into a giant Google billboard," says Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land website. "It effectively meant that Google could turn everyone's content into a place for Google ads."
For her efforts, Wojcicki earned a Google Founders' Award, a financial incentive provided to employees to create new ideas. Spokesman David Krane says it's designed to keep employees and give them the same kind of economic award they would receive if they had formed their own companies.
Krane won't disclose how much current Founders' Awards are worth, but the first two awarded to Googlers (not to Wojcicki) were $12 million each.
Venturing into offline ads
Creating things has kept Wojcicki at Google over the years. "I love taking an idea … to a prototype and then to a product that millions of people use," she says.
"People write in from all over the world giving you feedback, telling us how a product (AdSense) changed their lives, how they were able to start a business with it, and that's just incredibly rewarding."
Her next big challenge: translating Google's simple, measurable advertising network to radio, TV and print.
Ever wanted to run an ad on the radio but didn't know how to set it up? Google has an Audio Ads section on its website with links to radio producers who will create an ad for $75 to $100. Select stations and time slots, and you're on the air.
The radio venture recently left test mode and is open to the general public. Google is testing the concept in print and on TV; that test is available only to a small percentage of advertisers.
Sullivan and other Google analysts are skeptical about the nascent program's chances. With radio ads, Sullivan says, Google "will give information on when the ad played, with more data than before, but that still doesn't prove that anyone heard the ad. They haven't done anything innovative or different to show if the ad really worked."
'A real challenge' ahead
Bringing the Google ad network to old media "will be a real challenge," says Greg Sterling, an independent analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence. "The ability to serve a relevant ad against someone's query is one of the great innovations of the Internet, and it's not transferable to other media, where people are more passive."
Wojcicki concedes that ads on TV and radio won't be as measurable. But she says such ads placed through Google will have more data to mine than old media currently provide, thanks to Google's obsessive tracking of numbers via its network of computers. "For example, in TV we can provide second-by-second data on what's being watched on the ad," she says.
She cautions that it's still very early for Google Radio: "The first things we're doing are really just providing online ways for people to purchase the inventory easier."
Raised in Silicon Valley
Wojcicki has plenty of experience at being eyewitness to a forming business. Brin and Page originally met her and landed at the Menlo Park house via a friend of Wojcicki's who was dating Brin.
The house that gave birth to Google was always filled with mutual friends, Wojcicki says. Most of them techies themselves, their No. 1 question for Brin and Page back then: Who needs yet another search engine?
The answer: " 'Not another but a better search engine,' " Wojcicki recalls. "From the beginning, they had a very clear vision that they could build something much better than what existed at the time."
Wojcicki grew up in Palo Alto on the campus of Stanford University. Dad Stanley Wojcicki chairs Stanford's physics department.
Mom Esther, a journalism teacher at Palo Alto High School, says she expected Susan to become an English professor. Instead, after a post-college job at educational software firm MagicQuest, she was bitten by the tech bug.
Now, Google is "such a presence" in their lives that the Wojcickis try to limit family-time chatter about the company, Esther says, though not always successfully. "It's so innovative and exciting. They're doing all sorts of interesting things, and it's fun to hear about it."
That so many of her relatives were drawn to Google isn't unusual, says Susan Wojcicki. "There are lots of people in the Silicon Valley who are interested in working at a fast-moving, dynamic company like Google," she says. "Not just my family members."
Meanwhile, the humble house where Google was incubated was purchased by Google in September. Google won't disclose how much it paid, but homes in the neighborhood sell for more than $1 million. "I haven't had time to think about what we'll do with it," says CEO Schmidt. "But I figured we should buy it sooner rather than later."