Google executives believe an increase in Arabic-language web content would give the online search giant a welcome boost in advertising revenue across the region. "If there is information online, then it benefits Google," said Jennifer Haroon, the manager of health initiatives at Google.org. Ms Haroon was speaking as the company introduced an initiative to boost the amount of health information available on the internet in the Arabic language.
Google is offering to make a charitable donation of up to US$50,000 (Dh183,660) to a children's cancer hospital in Egypt to encourage volunteers to translate health-related English articles on Wikipedia. The pilot Health Speaks initiative has similar schemes in Hindi and Swahili, as Google looks to increase the amount of health information in the local-language versions of Wikipedia. Ms Haroon said the impetus for the project was the scarcity of health information available in Arabic, but acknowledged the addition of online information in the language would be of commercial benefit to Google.
"Any extra content online ? could benefit Google," she said. "The impetus for the project is the fact that we knew access to information was a problem." Ms Haroon pointed to UNESCO figures that state more than 90 per cent of content on the internet exists in only 12 languages. "Language should not be the barrier that denies millions of people worldwide the opportunity to improve their health with valuable health information," she said. "In English, health is one of the topics that is searched for the most."
Google chose more than 1,000 "good quality" health articles in the English version of Wikipedia and hired medical writers to evaluate them. It is now inviting volunteers to translate the articles on a "crowd-sourced" basis, aided by a medical glossary provided by Google. The initiative was launched last Wednesday and Google claims to have had a positive response so far. Ms Haroon played down possible concerns over the reliability of the translated articles.
"Wikipedia in general does not have requirements on who writes articles ? and in English that system works quite well. It's a self-policing system," she said. "We've already seen a wonderful response from the Arabic health community. "We do see quite a few students, and also medical professionals" sign up to translate articles. Wael Ghonim, the product and marketing manager for Google in the MENA region, said the motivation for the initiative was "not really about advertising revenues".
But he said any lift in Arabic content could help advertising sales. "The more content, the more people are going to use the internet. There's a very direct correlation between the number of users, content and monetisation," said Mr Ghonim. "What our Arabic engineers see is that Arabic content is increasing at a good pace. Over the past one year we've seen about 50 per cent growth in Arabic content.
"There are more users coming online and a lot of publishers are putting their content online. We are trying to find ways to get highly structured, good-quality content,." Health Speaks could be accompanied by other drives to increase the content in Arabic on the web, said Mr Ghonim. "In order for Google to operate at maximum capacity, we're looking for more users, and a lot more content on the web," he said. Mr Ghonim said Health Speaks could lead to more initiatives to boost Arabic content.
"There is huge room to expand. We're hoping the pilot would prove very good results. "If that happens, we're going to sit down and think about expanding it. There are other topics that would be very good to translate ? to Arabic." In turn, Google would look at commissioning further projects in other areas, he said. "We don't rule out other initiatives in other categories," Mr Ghonim said. "There are some initiatives that are coming very soon that are about bringing businesses online."
Isam Bayazidi, the chief executive of the online advertising network Ikoo, said it was unlikely additional health articles would directly boost Google's advertising revenue. But Mr Bayazidi said more content of this type could encourage Arabic speakers to go online, which would be beneficial for advertisers. "I don't think people will be interested in selling ads next to this. It's about creating more reasons for users to go online," he said.
Much of the online activity in the Arab world is "centred on communication and entertainment", with little information, research and e-commerce, Mr Bayazidi added. More Arabic content would help boost online ad spending in the MENA region to $170 million, with spending on digital advertising growing at between 60 and 70 per cent a year, he said. "Everyone is expecting that the online advertising spend in the MENA region will be around $100m in 2010," said Mr Bayazidi.
"Next year we are expecting another 60-70 per cent growth on the advertising spend. Online has been growing at a very fast pace." He said total spending could be about $170m next year, and he expected a "very active" final quarter this year. email@example.com