Bring Your Questions for Google Economist Hal Varian

Hal Varian

I was already a big fan of Hal Varian‘s columns on everyday economics in the Times when I had the good fortune to meet him at Google headquarters, when Levitt and I were out there a couple of years ago. He was even more impressive in person. Now you have a chance to ask him whatever you’d like.

As Google’s chief economist, Varian brings to the table his trademark assertion that “technology changes — economic laws do not.” A Googler since 2002, he has been involved in many aspects of the company’s growth, including auction design, finance, corporate strategy, and public policy. He has also spent a lot of time in the classroom, serving as a professor and former dean at his alma mater, the University of California-Berkeley, as well as teaching at M.I.T., Stanford, Oxford, and Michigan.

His textbooks, Intermediate Microeconomics and Microeconomic Analysis, are staples in both undergraduate and graduate classrooms. He’s also the co-author of Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Network Economy.

In his spare time, he serves as a fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation, the Econometric Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and spent three years as co-editor of the American Economic Review.

So post your questions for Varian below, and he’ll respond (as others have) in short course. Thanks to Hal for participating, and to you for asking.

[Note: The answers to these questions can be found here.]

Aaron Schiff

You once said that "marketing is the new finance" because of the data and tools that are now available. In your opinion, what are the three most useful quantitative techniques for analyzing this kind of data? To what extent does Google use this type of analysis?

michael webster

Professor Varian;

Is the pricing of keyword bidding at the same stage as pricing options was in the late 70's?

If not, where would you place it/

Zack Oliver

What are the chances of the modern day QWERTY keyboard ever being changed to a more efficient layout. Are the switching costs simply too high for consumers to relearn their typing skills or could it save us time in the long run? Do you know if google has done any research on keyboard layouts?

Andy Z.

Hello Dear Professor,

I'm pursuing a bachelor's in math. I've chosen to complete my diversity requirement in communications/public speaking.

I was wondering do you have any ideas to show how people that are good public speakers are/are not more successful than people otherwise?

I love a statistical approach to this as I am a math person myself, and learning about public speaking is certainly very interesting.

Thank you for your time.

manny v

How close to "perfect information" can you get at your position at google?


Are Google interested in hiring junior economist? If so, what field or what type (theory or empirical) kind of guy are you looking for? Or, what kind of work in Google that needs economist? Thanks.

Chris Masse

Any question about Google's enterprise prediction markets, run by Bo Cowgill's team. Bo now works under Hal Varian.


Former industrial centers in the Midwest are dying. Young people flee to bigger cities where the combination of high housing costs and large student loan debts are, for an increasing number, a lifetime of debt. If you want, think of it as a very high marginal tax rate on this generation as they begin adulthood.

Bankruptcy laws are written so that only the most indigent can ever have a fresh start.

Can technology save the former industrial centers? Will we be able to create cyber communities that can help smaller towns retain talented young people? Or will the cyber communities just ignore national borders leading to factor price equalization on a global scale?


If America begins to reverse NAFTA and turns against free trade how will that affect Google and other technology companies.


Uncertainty keeps the world interesting. Google's attitude to the future suggests that you agree. How do you assess undertainty in Google? Myself, I guesstimate the odds - or when I am being respectable, deal in Bayesian likelihoods (same different).

Kent Jackson

How does Google measure the market value and determine pricing for their ad placements on search results?

Is there concern that the search results are often in competition with the ads? i.e. do I click on the result or the ad. They both say "".

History has repeatedly shown that some of the most intelligent and creative thinkers lack a certain level of self-discipline to be successful in an academic setting. Does Google try to recruit this demographic and if so, how? I've been applying to Google since 1999 while a senior in college, but I feel like I can't get through the resume process because there isn't a PhD after my name.

Brian Gongol

@ Crazy Cooter (#21):

Naturally, Google wants to reduce costs for energy, which is one of its main costs of production. But when a business shifts investment capital from pursuing new markets and R&D in its flagship product lines to cost containment, that indicates that it sees limited prospects for growth on the revenue side.

If Google sees some of its best prospects lying outside the Internet sector, I'm curious whether the company is headed towards becoming a conglomerate in the style of GE or (formerly) ITT, both of which were one-time "hot" tech companies like Google is today.

jim nichols

As chief economist for a large information service / software based company, what are the typical areas that you requested to make decisions in? I can easily see a chief economist in financial firms.

Are there other large information firms that have chief economists?


Roopa Joshi

Two questions please

a) Tradiitional telecom companies have been subsidising long distance rates to provide local service and thus ensure universal access to telephony. Has the time come do you believe for policy makers to rethink model of universal service to not only include internet access but also to subsidise broadband usage and/or terminal equipment?
b) How does universal access to information - and in particular the economics of internet search be made a viable proposition in say a country with low literacy levels?
Thanks Dr Varian- I have been inspired by you


How does the "don't be evil" motto affects google's economic, financial and strategical decisions?

logan reed

i am also interested in #17's question.

from time to time i have read rumors that google is developing an operating system (unless those rumors ended with the OS for mobile phones). i very clearly understand the benefit to the users as more or less ever piece of software developed by google tends to be free, easy to use, and reliable. how would google benefit from this, economically or otherwise?



I've heard that people who work at Google can devote 20% of their time to work on a personal project (even totally unrelated to what Google does). Is there any evaluation of the benefits of this? Do most people think that it benefits Google or is it just part of Google's culture and hence not subject to profit maximizing criteria?


As an economist, we have taken for granted the notion that decisions in a free market are based on all available information. However, in reality we do not have equal access to all relevant information and biases do play a role in making economic decisions. Does Google's algorithm taken this subjective bias into consideration?

What is your take on the current "bidding war" that involves Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and other companies? I know you have vested interest in it but from a purely economic perspective, how do you think it will play out?

Bill Springer

Dr. Varian,

Two major sectors of the US economy, health care and education, have been noteworthy for their seeming resistance to productivity improvements as a result of information technology including the Internet. My hypothesis is that this is due to the market power of entrenched players in each of these two industries. Do you agree with thisy hypothesis, and if so, what role do you think other entities in these two sectors (consumers, government regulators, and potential new entrants) can play to resolve this issue?

Joe Hunkins

What role does simple "user habit" play in the economic equation? Google must have studied what it takes for users to change search providers, and I'm guessing that Google benefits far more from habituation than from a superior set of results. This is an easily testable hypothesis. I'd suggest that Google was the only great search several years ago when many started using search regularly. This habit will die hard, even as others approach Google in quality.