For many years Google designed its services for early adopters of new technology, who tended to be in Silicon Valley, said Nelson Mattos, who oversaw Google's Europe and Africa operations for several years. Great products would then find a broad global audience.
"Over time, as you saw the growth of Facebook, the importance of WhatsApp and other tools in these new markets, and not the same adoption of Google, the company started to realize that maybe they had to change that approach," Mattos said. Shortly after taking the helm three years ago, Pichai mapped a new strategy for places such as India: More services tailored to locals; more marketing on radio, billboards and TV; more local staff and start-up investment.
Google's India workforce has more than doubled since to more than 4,000 employees, or about eight times Facebook's presence, according to a tally of LinkedIn profiles and company statements.
Its products evolved too, becoming easier to use with low data plans. Smartphone apps such as Files Go and Tez — rebranded last week as Google Pay — were aimed at Indians.
"There's definitely a sea change," said Asif Baki, a user researcher at Google who oversees two-week "immersion trips" in developing markets for senior executives and staff.
The efforts are bearing fruit. Indian users during the first half of this year spent more time on Google services than on Facebook services, according to estimates from audience measurement firm Comscore. Over a similar period a year ago, Facebook came out on top.
Extending those gains to the ad business is a work in progress. A handful of Google executives, including leaders for display ads and small business advertisers, traveled to India earlier this year in a previously unreported trip to better understand the needs of Indian clients.
The visit spurred them to consider ideas such as enabling advertisers to reach users only in a particular Indian state, since language and literacy vary greatly around the country, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
At the New Delhi event, Google unveiled a plan to bring Indian newspaper content online, to increase the supply of search results — and ads — available in regional languages.
Google still has to reckon with other issues. Small businesses in emerging markets are less likely to have websites, a foundation for Google ad campaigns but unnecessary for Facebook.
Executives met with one Indian merchant who recorded product videos on YouTube then messaged the links to potential customers on WhatsApp, said Kim Spalding, the company's general manager and product lead for small business ads.
Facebook, meanwhile, is already on to commercializing such behavior. Just weeks ago, it began charging for text-based marketing features on WhatsApp, with video ads expected to launch next year.