The Geekdom of Google
The End of the World as We Know It
By Ken Auletta
Penguin Press; 384pp.; $27.95 In just the past four years, Google (GOOG) has been profiled in no fewer than six books, from John Battelle's seminal 2005 The Search to Jeff Jarvis' What Would Google Do? earlier this year to former BusinessWeek correspondent Richard L. Brandt's Inside Larry & Sergey's Brain in late September. Thanks to Ken Auletta's high profile as media columnist for The New Yorker and as the author of eight previous books, his Googled: The End of the World as We Know It is among the most anticipated. And for the most part, Auletta delivers.
Googled provides the most deeply reported look yet at what is perhaps the world's most closely watched company. It chronicles how Google has grown into an advertising powerhouse whose revenues now match those of the five broadcast networks combined—most of this coming from those little four-line text ads that appear next to search results. The book comes at a pivotal time for Google. Despite a recent earnings upswing, it faces an increasing number of challenges. It still has not managed to make much money on its many attempts to move beyond search ads. Moreover, resistance to its widening influence is growing from government regulators and its own customers.
With unprecedented access to the secretive outfit, Auletta interviewed 150 current and former Google employees along with 150 outsiders. The effort shows in the many entertaining details and anecdotes about Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the acutely engineering-focused culture they created, and their growing conflicts with the rest of the media world they're helping to disrupt. One example: Auletta describes how Page couldn't stop staring at his handheld device during a meeting between the founders and mogul Barry Diller. Diller told him to choose between it and their conversation. "I'll do this," Page replied, not raising his eyes. Diller's conclusion: "More than most people, they were wildly self-possessed."
PROFESSED VIRTUEThat meeting captures an essential truth about Google, one that's a central theme of the book: The company is the most concentrated gathering of left-brain types on the planet. Auletta understands that this engineering mindset is both the company's greatest strength and its Achilles' heel.
On the positive side, the co-founders' focus on providing the best possible search technology allowed them to zoom past rivals such as Yahoo! (YHOO) and AOL (TWX), both of which alienated users with their sometimes annoying and ineffective ads. Google uses its mysterious mathematical formulas to give higher play on search results pages to ads that get lots of clicks. It even stops running ads on which nobody clicks, although that means less revenue in the short term. Google's tech mastery means that it now utterly dominates search advertising, with more than 75% of the market.
Google's geeks also question everything, most of all conventional corporate thinking. In what is as much a pointed attempt to lessen management control as it is an employee perk, Google urges engineers to spend 20% of their time on personal projects. The co-founders view their company as being as much a social force as an economic one. In their initial public offering prospectus, the duo said eight times that Google wants to make the world a better place.
But the company's professed virtue can turn too easily to hubris, Auletta notes. Time after time, Google's executives have been surprised by opposition to their actions. The most conspicuous miscue came last year when Google proposed a search ad deal with Yahoo to keep the latter out of Microsoft's (MSFT) clutches. Google seemed shockingly blind to the likelihood that many outsiders—including the Justice Dept., which threatened an antitrust lawsuit before Google backed down—could question the dominant industry leader's motives.
Readers might feel they've already heard much of what's here, and Auletta sheds little new light on Google's impact. The book also occasionally overplays the company's enthusiasm for strictly data-driven decisions. Google's engineers, Auletta writes, "naively believe that most mysteries, including the mysteries of human behavior, are unlocked with data." Yet so far, that belief seems more savvy than naive, and in any case it's not nearly as absolute as Auletta implies; Google uses thousands of human "raters" to help perfect its search results, for instance.
At the same time, Auletta takes Old Media to task for using Google as a "convenient piñata" for their frustrations about the power the Net gives people over their media consumption. Media companies would be better off embracing change, he contends. "If Google is destroying or weakening old business models, it is because the Internet inevitably destroys old ways of doing things," he writes. "It is a wave-generating company that other media companies ride, crash into, or are submerged by." What no one, including Auletta, can yet answer is how long Google can stay atop the waves it is creating.
Business Exchange: Read, save, and add content on BW's new Web 2.0 topic networkGoogle Books: Searching for AgreementSince 2004, Google (GOOG) has scanned some 7 million volumes for its Google Books project—and been sued by authors and writers over alleged copyright violations. A class action filed by publishers and the Authors Guild ended in a settlement that is still being reviewed by the courts. In an Oct. 4 essay for The New York Times Book Review, professor Lewis Hyde, a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, challenges a key provision of the settlement that involves works under copyright whose owners cannot be located.To read the essay go to http://bx.businessweek.com/google/reference/