The First Google Hangout for UAE Bloggers was held at The Pavilion Downtown Dubai
Google has hit the ground running this year with the launch of personalised results in search, company-wide evangelising of Google+ as the new frontier in social networking with 90 million users, aggressive trimming around the edges on its product portfolio, and more.
Bloggers and influencers in the UAE could feel the intensity and passion by which Google is powering ahead when we got invites to ‘hang out’ with Googlers at The Pavilion Downtown Dubai on 18 January 2012.
I received an invite from Firaas Salah from Ketchum RAAD Middle East to attend the first ever Google Hangout with UAE Bloggers in Dubai.
Being someone who spends most of his waking hours using Google and trains his clients to use Google services, I was more than happy to accept the privilege. How often do you get to meet Googlers in person, outside the conference and seminar circuit, in the UAE?
Travelling more than 140 km from Abu Dhabi, I made it to the event just in time for the presentation. I missed the half-hour socialising bit in the Dubai sun on the Pavilion lawns. Hind Rasheed, Communications Manager – MENA for Global Communications and Public Affairs, welcomed the guests and was very helpful throughout the event.
Firas from Ketchum RAAD ushered me into the presentation hall where my blogger buddies were all set to listen to Ari Keşişoğlu, Google’s Managing Director for Middle East North Africa.
Ari Keşişoğlu, Google’s Managing Director for Middle East North Africa patiently answered all kinds of blogger questions after the Google features and services session
The setting was informal and friendly – like all Google events are – and I sat in the front row to pay full attention. You wouldn’t obviously see me in most of the photos here as I have taken them. (I’m a shy geek but can’t keep my hands off anything Google – a craving which was well met by the Google goody bag that awaited all guests.)
Ari pointed out that although the Arab world has 5% of the world’s population, the share of Arabic content in Google’s index is only 1.5%. Joe Akkawi, managing partner of PAZ Marketing and a blogger who does not mince words, was quick to question how that could be. Why is our growth in numbers not reflecting in increasing content?
The natural evolution of the internet follows a pattern of Infrastructure > Content > Transactions, but the internet users in the MENA region seem to be going slow in the ‘content’ phase with growth from 1.1% to 1.5% of indexed content only, year on year, Ari explained. “The content phase has not played out well.”
“Here we are. What can we do for you guys?”
Ari Keşişoğlu, Google’s Managing Director for Middle East North Africa engaged bloggers at Google’s first hangout in the UAE. “You guys are significantly ahead of the game.”
Having worked on the creative and corporate communication of twofour54 – a community created to facilitate content creation in the Arab region – I could completely understand Ari’s point.
It is acknowledged by our policy makers that the region consumes content more and creates original content less – and long-term steps are being taken to develop and grow content ecosystems locally – from Dubai Media City to Abu Dhabi Media Zone.
We need more and more avenues to facilitate and encourage content creators – Arabs or otherwise. Bloggers can be very valuable in this regard. Google has been fast to recognise this and take action.
Think. How relevant would Google be if it cannot serve locally relevant pages? What if no such pages exist? Also, if there are no Arabic websites and blogs, who would tell our stories and put across our point of view to the world. From a commercial perspective, where would advertisers place ads if there were no relevant pages being generated?
Even from a non-commercial viewpoint, I am tired of search engines throwing up content that does not work for me in my region. Like no MENA version reviews of products and all I get is models that are not available in my region.
We need relevant, local content, and as bloggers we are doing our part to add what we can to the worldwide web of shared wisdom and experience.
“We don’t want the internet to be American,” Ari said. He identified Google as being an “enabling technology platform” for promoting diversity of views, opinion, content, nationalities. And the presentation was not all talk. While Ari touched upon the need for fresh and original content from the region, and how Google is more than willing to support content creators like bloggers – specific details of how Google is enabling its users in the region were given by Maha Abouelenein, Google’s Head of Communications – MENA for Global Communications and Public Affairs.
Maha Abouelenein, Google’s Head of Communications for MENA for Global Communications & Public Affairs, talks about Google products
Maha covered a lot of ground in her presentation, showcasing the opportunities bloggers have with various Google products and initiatives like:
- The 2nd biggest search engine (after Google of course)
- 48 hours of video uploaded every minute
- 3 BILLION videos watched every day!
- The fastest growing browser in the region
- #1 in Tunisia, Libya, Jordan
- #2 in UAE, KSA, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Algeria, Morocco
- 200 million users globally
Google Chrome ‘Tanjore’ Ad
Then, there was this beautiful ad for Chrome which is based on the true story of G. Rajendran, an artist from Tamil Nadu (Southern India) who used internet to revive the ancient art of “Tanjore” paintings and also built a successful business in the process.
Streaming the Hajj live on YouTube
Maha spoke about how for the first time in history, Google was permitted by the Saudi authorities to livestream the Hajj on a dedicated YouTube channel – I had personally found this one of the most inspiring uses of technology to touch people’s lives in the region when it was launched during Hajj season. I come from a country where people spend a lifetime yearning to get one glimpse of the Holy Land – and here was Google sharing the experience live, at the click of a button. Bravo!
We also discussed Google helping Egypt revolutionaries communicate with the world through a collaboration with Twitter – the Speak to Tweet service where users could tweet using their phones. Then, a dedicated landing page for Egyptian elections. ‘Kingdom Dialogues’ moderation by Google in Saudi Arabia to connect people to politicians. Ari did point out that “we are not a political organisation – we want to enable users to express their opinions”. Google is also heavily investing in encouraging startups in the region – Maha was off to attend and judge StartUp Weekend in Cairo.
Maha showed some Google doodles depicting Arabia, mentioned that one of the finalists in a Google space competition is from the Middle East and showed some cool ways people are using Google+ hangouts (I’m a big fan of G+ hangouts).
It was the first time I heard of it but I salute Google for this feature – Google Transparency Reports. Google publishes an account of content removal requests and user data requests (the government wanting to read your private emails and documents inside your Google account) it receives from governments and law enforcement agencies and lists these countrywise.
Here’s what I discovered – UAE does not figure in any of the lists (which is a good thing). USA has a morbid amount of user data requests (which of course shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us) but INDIA, yes, the world’s largest democracy, had a large amount of requests to Google to remove data simply related to criticism of local politicians (shame!) which Google declined (cool!) and the second highest number of user data requests in the world.
You have probably heard that Indian politicians are taking Facebook and other websites to court for publishing offensive content. Now we know what the real story is – thanks to Google’s transparency reports.
Lots of questions were asked by us, bloggers. All were answered, candidly. Suggestions came in too. Sultan Al-Qassemi was urging for better integration of Google products so that language transliterated text could seamlessly flow across Google services (RTL is a big technological challenge Google is working hard on). I was all ears when someone asked why we don’t have Google+ apps for Blackberry (OS with bigger numbers are given priority). I shared my secret trick to import Facebook contacts into Google+ over lunch with fellow bloggers. I think Google should facilitate this process
Joe Akkawi had a lot to say about Android and mobile – and he doesn’t look like an Apple fan by his tweets to me – loves his Android smartphone when I asked him. I quizzed him on his recent tweets about social media quacks – and he had tales of horror to share about how clients are being taken for a ride by self-appointed ‘social media agencies’.
The day was 18 January so I asked Ari what Google’s stand on SOPA was and he let us know that Google’s US homepage would have a message of protest against SOPA. Many websites that day were observing a blackout to support internet freedom.
Google blacked out its logo and collected 4.5 million signatures against SOPA
I personally think it is a great time for Google to step up and launch a new model of paid delivery of artistic content using its already existing platforms like YouTube and Blogger. It’s time millions of users and user-centric companies like Google stood up and banded together against the few organisations that are hell-bent on earning their bread by selling off an artists’ talent and then crying foul over ‘piracy’. I’d be happy to pay YouTube to watch premium content while also enjoying the spoofs and alternate versions of all kinds of original content for free.
Maha spoke about Google Media Academy for journalists and media professionals which produced 400 graduates in its first batch. I shared my challenges as one of the first bloggers in the region to ask for and GET official press accreditation for big ticket business events and how difficult it used to be for bloggers to be recognised as journalists back in 2006 when I started my Advertising and Marketing Blog from the Middle East.
I would like to see if Google takes bloggers seriously enough to consider them for its media training. I would attend. If its attention (lack of) to blogspot is an indication, I would be worried – but then, Google seems to be listening to what bloggers have to say as this hangout proves. So my hopes are high. Fellow blogger Ion Gonzaga, who was chosen along with me as an ambassador in the Middle East by Samsung when they launched the Galaxy Tab, actually raised this issue and blogged about it here.
My favourite parts of the first Google Hangout for UAE bloggers
1. Very well organised invitation and RSVP procedure, big hand to Firas Salah of Ketchum Raad.
2. A warm and open approach with Ari Keşişoğlu, the Managing Director of Google MENA, taking the time to meet and greet bloggers personally one by one.
3. A passion to share information gladly, with Hind Rasheed sharing her contact details and Maha Abouelenein putting up her email and mobile number on a presentation slide. It doesn’t get more accessible than this!
Overall, it was a very engaging and informative event, organised and managed with attention to details, yet informal enough to not intimidate bloggers, many of whom are introverts and stay away from overly commercialised events.
Bloggers who attended included (in no particular order) Ion Gonzaga, Iba Masood, Joe Akkawi, Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, TN Narayanaswamy, Remy Francis, Omar Abu Omar, Samer Marzouq, Raju Narain, Shamim Kassibawi, Kangan Kapoor, Hitesh, Theresa Tsui, Saqer Al Marri, Abbas Jaffar Ali, and Bhavishya Kanjhan. Ben Rossi from Computer News Middle East and Triska Hamid from MEED also joined us.
Useful Reading – my link love to fellow bloggers:
1. Samer Marzouq of Jazarah.net was the first blogger to post a video interview from the event (above)
2. Joe Akkawi has bulleted the event well in his ‘joernal‘ (post more often dude, you rock it!)
3. Ion Gonzaga has blogged about the event on his Boy Dubai blog (great pic of Google goodies)
4. Remy Francis has written about the event and dedicated a handcrafted Google doodle specially as a token of thanks. So sweet!
5. Ben Rossi has filed his report on the event in Computer News Middle East.
6. Omar Abu Omar has an awesome photo essay on the event where else but on his Google+ profile.
Now a very special, special treat for you dear reader who read all the way till here…
A very special treat for all your senses, straight from Google’s first hangout with UAE bloggers in Dubai
Grill asparagus with smoked salmon steak in citrus sauce
Crunchy praline and chocolate mousse on hazelnut served with strawberry ice cream
Still reading? Here’s a hug and a gallery with even more images.
Don’t you just love me now? Let me know via comments, shares, retweets