Google, Search and a Brave New World

First published October 27, 2005 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

As I write this, I have literally just closed the cover on John Battelle’s new book, “The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture.” Reading it was a unique experience for me. It was addictive, like literary crack. I devoured it in huge gulps. I can’t recall the last time I read a book in such a short time.

Look, They’re Writing About Us!

For the last 10 years, the part of my life not devoted to my wife and kids has been consumed with search. So reading the book was like reading a family history. I knew many of the people quoted. I had lived through the history recounted. I even found a quote from myself in the book.

I’ve never met John Battelle, but as I read, it was like he had crawled into my brain, picked up things I’ve been thinking about for years, then rendered them whole with much more skill and eloquence than I could ever possibly manage.

“The Search” is unlike any previous volume written on search. There have been several “how-to” books that have explored the mechanics of search, both from a user’s and marketer’s perspective. But Battelle for the first time explores search as a business and social phenomenon. Not only that, he muses that it might be THE social phenomenon, with world-shattering implications. For anyone who has grown up in search, it’s like seeing your high school sweetheart become a world-famous centerfold. “See, I told you she was hot. No one believed me!” It’s public confirmation of everything we’ve been trying to tell people for a decade.

Battelle has somehow managed to get access to the people who literally invented the industry. He has obviously immersed himself in the world of search, but has brought a 50,000-foot view that allows him to explore a much larger picture from a slightly different perspective. He looks at what search may evolve to become. As the founder of Wired and The Industry Standard, Battelle has the journalistic chops to dig out the good stuff and get it right, but he maintains a wide-eyed wonder at the sheer enormity of the social implications.

A Peek inside Google’s Kimono

What emerges is a fascinating glimpse into search as an emerging phenomenon, and a particularly astute look inside the relatively private world of Google. As regular readers of this column know, I’ve devoted more than a few words to this perplexing company.

I remember telling someone at a conference once that Google alternatively strikes me as pure genius, and as the proverbial room of monkeys randomly striking at typewriters. The truth, according to Battelle, is that Google is both. The monkeys are the genius. And the hope is that in the process they’ll reinvent everything.

Google, formed in the petri dish of hypergrowth unlike anything ever seen before, is either heading for the world’s largest comeuppance, or it may just change the world. Although Battelle is remarkably even-handed in his portrayal, there’s no doubt that he’s rooting for Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Google’s founders.

Google is advancing on a thousand different fronts at once. With their acknowledged brilliance, arrogance and determination, Brin and Page have built a company that worships at the altar of technology. The high priests are legions of engineers, all given explicit instructions to invent something cool. There is little in the way of top-down strategy. Page is quoted as saying that he’s not a big believer in strategy. Rather, the Google Brin and Page envision is a support system for rampant entrepreneurialism, with grassroots innovation ultimately driving the direction of the company. The multi-million dollar Founders’ Award attaches heavy bonuses to this activity, giving employees a reason to stay in the corporate nest, rather than founding their own companies and ultimately hoping to be acquired again by Google.

But a paradox lies at the heart of Google. For all its encouragement of grassroots innovation, the company is also portrayed in the book as a serfdom, with Brin and Page as the iron-fisted and mercurial overlords prone to micromanaging. There is one particularly vivid scene where CEO Eric Schmidt finds Brin shaking at his desk, suffering through a bad back, meticulously poring over 500-plus applications for internal development projects, to see which will get his stamp of approval.

Despite the name, “The Search” is not just another search book. It’s a probing look at the crux of what makes the Internet such a powerful force for change. It explores the fabric of our society, and makes us realize that fabric could be ripped apart by forces already unleashed by technology. I’m not sure it will be as compelling a read for those outside the industry. Like most things to do with search, there will likely be more who say “Huh?” than “Wow!”

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