One of the first reactions to March's devastating quake-and-tsunami combo was Google's Person Finder—a database of missing individuals. But even for the search king, it wasn't easy. And the fact that Google's still unknown to many didn't help.
The NYT describes the company's tireless efforts to drop everything and divert its Japanese staff to disaster aid (in its own Google-y way). Google asked users to upload missing persons photos to Picasa to help flesh out the list, and soon they were completely inundated. Thousands of photos poured in, exceeding Google's ability to transcribe them—though the database eventually exceeded an astounding 600,000 people, helping connect friends and family in the aftermath of the disaster.
But the effort revealed the extent to which Google is a distant second place behind Yahoo in Japan. Many Japanese are averse to the company out of privacy concerns, and many simply didn't know what Google was. Which seems impossible, and yet the Times quotes one employee who had to spell it all out from scratch when trying to contact local governments: "I am from an Internet company called Google. We would like your cooperation."
The extent to which Google built their database out of humanitarian empathy or out of market share hunger is an unknown. Likely a mixture of the two. [NYT]