Google may not be as well known in Japan as it is in the U.S., but that didn't stop the search company from lending a helping hand after the Japanese tsunami and earthquake, something that helped connect families with missing loved ones and possibly also helped to reconnect Google itself with the Japanese people.
As the New York Times reports, Google's Person Finder — its website for sharing or finding information about missing people following a crisis — has collected more than 600,000 records, the largest database of people missing in Japan after the disaster.
Google set up Person Finder for Japan within two hours of the March 11 tsunami, a move that the Times says may have helped the company to win over the Japanese people after years of missteps in the country.
Most of the information that ended up in People Finder would have languished on handwritten posters on the walls of evacuation centers if not for Google. "Google began asking users to take photos of the posters and upload them on Google’s Picasa online photo sharing service," Times writer Hiroko Tabuchi reports. "The company put its sales team of about 100 to work transcribing names from the photos onto Person Finder."
Even that wasn't enough, but the world turned up to help. Thousands of anonymous volunteers visited Picasa and transcribed 140,000 posters, adding the data to Person Finder.
Google also went to local officials and offered to help. Although the company's maps and street images had previously been perceived as having breached Japanese privacy rights, officials from around the country began sharing their lists of missing people with Google People Finder. Google's engineers also chimed in with several new ideas which were quickly executed, including making Person Finder usable on mobile devices.
Google is now using its Street View technology to document the damage caused by the tsunami and track reconstruction efforts. Even though previous efforts to use Street View had previously sparked privacy concerns, town and city officials throughout the region have let Google in to remap their streets.
Google remains the number-two search engine in Japan, behind long-dominant Yahoo Japan. As the Times reported, "Analysts say it is too soon to tell whether Google's efforts have translated into a larger share of search or online advertising since the quake." And as technology consultant and journalist Nobuyuki Hayashi told the paper, "I don't know if ordinary Japanese are suddenly going to start using Google search; but several of Google's services are becoming lifelines for people in the disaster zone. If these services can contribute to the region's recovery, Google will bolster its presence in Japan."
Google definitely did not make any money through the disaster: although its gross revenue for the second quarter of 2011 was $9.02 billion, "Google stated that the disaster in Japan negatively impacted results in the last quarter," according to the financial website, Zacks Investment Research.