Science & Technology
6:10 pm
Tue December 11, 2012

What Goes On At Google's Pittsburgh Office?

Google is one of the most high-profile companies contributing to Pittsburgh's resurrection as a tech industry hub, its familiar multicolored logo unmistakable atop the Bakery Square development its offices anchor. 

But for all of Google's visibility locally -- to say nothing of its ubiquity in the lives of Internet users everywhere -- the work done by engineers at the company's Larimer campus is largely invisible. They don't make maps, blaze trails in social media, or traffic in cutting-edge experimental applications. Rather, they tend the machinery that makes everything else possible by monetizing web use.  Largely invisible -- but not entirely. Users see the work of Pittsburgh's Googlers every time a search turns up an ad or paid result. Chat up one of the more than 150 local employees off the record and you'll learn it's not the most glamorous posting within a company known for big ideas and splashy creative projects. But if advertising is a necessary evil in digital culture, Google at least takes pride in its efforts to deliver ads that users may actually find useful -- or, failing that, relevant to their search behavior. Google has recently drawn fire from search rival Bing and its owner, Microsoft, for its practice of listing only paid results for queries made via the Google Shopping tool. In the past such queries had returned both free and paid results. The Shopping section includes a disclaimer indicating that "Google is compensated by these merchants. Payment is one of several factors used to rank these results." Google maintains that its primary web search results continue to uphold a strict separation, which spokesman Aaron Stein likens to a "Church/State divide," between "organic" and "paid" search results. For example, a search for "sandwich" originating from an IP address in the Pittsburgh area will likely turn up a link to the Primanti Brothers website, along with restaurant reviews and other items the search algorithm -- in this case, based on location -- deems likely to address what the user is looking for. The same query may or may not also turn up a separate sponsored Primanti link, depending on whether the restaurant has paid Google for the privilege.  In any case, Google spokeswoman Becca Ginsberg clarified, the company's Pittsburgh employees deal only with the engineering aspects of search and ad placement, while business models and higher-level targeting  decisions are handled elsewhere.