Google bets on value of prediction markets

Google builds largest internal corporate prediction market

Analysis of the markets found a distinct pro-Google bias, however. Cowgill separated outcomes into the categories "good for Google" and "bad for Google," excepting such unrelated prediction markets as "will Harriet Miers be confirmed?" -- and found that people betting on "bad for Google" were able to make a killing because traders bet too heavily on the good outcomes.

People were even more optimistic about specific events related to Google on days when the company's stock price went up, even if the increase had nothing to do with the events being wagered on.

In addition to discovering biases, Cowgill was able to figure out which types of relationships affect the way someone bets, and, in turn, chart how information flows through the organization. Although users are anonymous to each other, Cowgill and fellow researchers can access tons of details on specific users, including where they sit.

"We have GPS coordinates of every desk in every building," Cowgill said.

Google looked at all sorts of relationships -- people who work for the same boss, who went to the same school, who work on the same projects, who review one another's software code, who are on the same e-mail threads, who speak the same language.

One factor stood out above all others: physical proximity. Googlers who sit near each other bet alike.

"The distance measured in feet was a good predictor of whether people will be trading alike," Cowgill said. This reinforcement of the value of human contact "is an ironic finding for us to have at Google, where we're selling products that help you overcome distance and collaborate without having to be nearby each other."

The association between physical proximity and trading patterns was strong no matter how Cowgill and colleagues crunched the numbers. People who sit near each other trade alike even if they don't work on the same projects. People who work on the same projects but don't sit near each other do not trade alike.

When Googlers move to a new office or desk -- as they do about once every 90 days -- they begin trading like nearby employees within about six weeks. Information exchanges obviously are happening within a few feet of employees' desks.

Google traditionally liked to seat people as close together as possible, but had been moving away from that ideal a little bit, Cowgill said. The prediction markets confirmed that placing employees near one another was the right way to go.

As a philosophical matter, Google likes to "pack people in tight . . . so they can share information," Cowgill said. "As a company gets larger, people don't always adhere to the founding tenets, or if they're in a big building they'll spread out because it's more comfortable. This was something where we could say 'there's value and we can measure that, and we can compare it to what it's like when people e-mail.'"

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