Every little bit counts
Googled: The End of the World as We Know It by Ken Auletta. New York: Penguin Press, 2009, 384pp.
The world’s top search engine, a $175 billion corporation second only to Coca Cola in name recognition worldwide, and a new active verb, Google knows what it’s about. But others aren’t so sure, and now that its critics, competitors, and fans—and, increasingly, the world’s courts—are keen to figure out what it is and where it’s headed, it may have some public explaining to do.
The big questions about Google’s future spring partly from the giant’s beginnings, and Ken Auletta’s Googled: The End of the World as We Know It is a searching and well-informed probe into both. For added measure, the book is also a platonic love story and a moral tale.
Auletta’s account of Google’s origins and early years shows a great notion—free delivery of content picked by datamining software and data users—taking shape in a graduate engineering school and taking flight in an atmosphere of absolute mutual trust and respect as remarkable as the big idea itself. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page met at Stanford in 1995 just as the Internet was taking off. Soon, they were sparring non-stop, testing new ideas and prevailing theories, including the gospel on keyword search, and discovering that they both disdained authority and no-can-do thinking in general. Mentors from that time credit this pluck more than sheer brilliance—hardly scarce in Stanford’s engineering department—with Brin and Page’s success.
The technical breakthrough, and here Auletta quotes John Battelle’s The Search, was the pair’s “algorithm—dubbed PageRank after Larry—that manages to take into account the number of links into a particular site and the number of links into each of the linking sites.” From that moment on, keywords had to make room for the wisdom of crowds in search results and the career road for the wiz kids forked, forcing on Brin and Page a hard choice between academe and full-bore entrepreneurship.
Hyper-secretive about their new search engine (then called BackRub), Brin and Page left Stanford to make the rounds of potential funders, networking with Silicon Valley’s angel investors and first-generation search-engine companies. The fateful decision about whether to be an add-on or a start-up hung on their mutual distaste for rigging scientific searches by letting paid advertising pages percolate to the top. Above all, they would stay true to their algorithm.
And to each other. By 1998, Brin and Page had offices, incorporation papers, and one employee. Two years and one billion indexed webpages later, they had yet to turn a significant profit but had revenues of $19 million and a burning need—felt less by them than by their advisors—for a CEO to run Google’s daily business. A third party was also needed to challenge the founders’ like thinking lest engineering bravado trump everything else the young company required to thrive. In early 2001, capping a yo-yo courtship, Eric Schmidt signed on with Google after three years and a checkered record as Novell’s CEO. The adjustment to power-sharing and competing perspectives was huge and rocky at first—possible at all, Auletta contends, only because Schmidt kept his ego out of it—but with the troika in place conditions were ripe for a wave of flat-out brilliant money-making ideas.
The rest has made technological and business history. In early 2002, the beta-tested AdWords launched, allowing advertisers to display simple ads related to the text on the webpages viewers pulled up. A year later came AdSense, which pays websites to host Adwords related to their content, and then a string of innovations that extended Google’s reach far beyond the realm of search engines. The company’s policy of allowing its engineers so spend 20% of their paid time following their own hunches and inspirations was a catalyst for many of these new services: Gmail, Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Analytics, the Google Chrome web browser,” GoogleVoice and countless “mashups” using freely available Google data.
Besides the right team, Google long seemed to have an unbeatable philosophy. One tenet is the let-the-people-decide principle embedded in both Google’s basic computing formula and its ad scheme. As Auletta explains, “advertisers would rank higher on the search results page based not just on the price they bid per keyword, but on the number of clicks their ads received. The more clicks, the lower the price, and the higher they would rank.” Other features of Google’s business model also sound high-minded and simple, at least until applied. To quote Auletta, “you can trust your folks” (employees) and customers and “shoot for the moon, not the tops of trees.” And to Google, information is intrinsically good, helping people make better decisions about almost everything, not just about what to buy.
Apparently, optimism and idealism sell. The company’s odd motto, “Don’t be evil,” has come to define how most consumers see Google, especially in relation to the purportedly more ruthless Microsoft (the subject of the author’s last book). Most, says Auletta, view Brin and Page’s brainchild as “an iconic brand, a force for good, a company that made search easy and fast and free; a company that retained its bold entrepreneurial spirit and was both a beneficent employer and a benefactor to shareholders.”
Some competitors take a different view, and the second half of Googled explains why. Auletta doesn’t have much new to say about the newspaper industry’s decline or about book publishing, but his bead on how the other media corporations missed the cues that radical change was afoot seems exactly right. Even though Marshall Mcluhan told us decades ago that the medium is the message, not until Google bought YouTube did the traditional media begin to see just how blurred the line between content and distribution has become. And not until Google absorbed Android did the phone companies wake up. Especially interesting is Auletta’s account of how the pre-Google advertising industry is being pushed into a niche after owning the whole show.
Auletta’s riveting blow by blow exposes Google’s flaws and vulnerabilities along with its triumphs and the rigidity of its “frenemies.” Foremost is the hubris that comes from winning big before failing at anything. Related is utter reliance on academic credentials in hiring as bankable proxies for such essential but hard to quantify attributes as social grace, business instincts, and team spirit. A bit like the artificial intelligence Page and Brin found so fascinating at Stanford is a literal-mindedness at Google that seems to cut both ways—a brainy efficiency reigns, but the company can’t see itself as others do, which can be embarrassing and dangerous given what its marketing and advertising business is all about. And Google’s uneasy peace with China’s censors also looks to be a business mistake as well as an ethical lapse. (The company’s recent public criticism of Chinese practices suggests that company policy is being reconsidered.)
Auletta’s book has shortcomings too. As the hyperbolic subtitle makes clear, the author is awestruck by Google, and he’s no digital native. To those younger than Baby Boomers, Google—however admired—may represent the latest new thing or Microsoft’s heir as the coolest employer ever more than it does a transformative idea. Auletta acknowledges as much, but doesn’t dig deep enough into the possibility’s implications for Google’s future.
Following the money, Auletta also emphasizes Google’s business success at the expense of the engineering side of the story. True, Google guards its trade secrets ferociously—what happens at the Googleplex campus stays at Googleplex—and the business story is irresistibly juicy. But many readers might want to know more about whether something Google-like was ripe to happen with or without Page and Brin. Although Auletta probably wrote the book he wanted to and should mostly be judged accordingly, more on the state of computational science before and during Google’s rise would have made this 270-degree surround truly definitive.
A final complaint is perhaps just a question. After Auletta invested years of research in this book, the finish line (Fall 2009 ) seems arbitrary when a few more months would have seen reportable action on the Google Book settlement and other historic privacy and copyright cases. Moving targets vex all in-the-moment journalism, but Googled already needs an update or a sequel.
Gaps aside, Auletta’s take on what makes Google unique and powerful and what puts it at risk now and how these two factors mirror each other should spellbind B-school and engineering students and make the rest of us wonder where googling as a tool, a free good, and a business teetering between oligopoly and monopoly ends. (If you google Google, you get 2 billion citations and one ad—“Make Google your home page.”)
Kathleen Courrier ([email protected]) is vice president for communication at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC.