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Google + Rise to Power + Audacious

Editor's Rating: star rating

Randall Stross's Planet Google chronicles how the search giant came to be king—and what might topple it someday

Planet Google:

One Company's Audacious Plan

to Organize Everything We Know

By Randall Stross

Free Press; 275 pp.; $26

The challenge facing anyone who writes about Google (GOOG) is that readers may assume they already know all that can be said about the Internet search giant. After all, the 10-year-old juggernaut has been the subject of many thousands of press reports and at least two mainstream books. But to his credit, in Planet Google: One Company's Audacious Plan to Organize Everything We Know, author Randall Stross digs beneath the usual Googley tales of lava lamps and free gourmet food for employees to offer new insight into the company's pointedly unorthodox business practices. At a slim 200 pages, not counting notes and index, Planet Google isn't comprehensive. Yet Stross, a New York Times columnist and San Jose State University business professor, dives in far enough to illuminate the method and singleminded madness behind Google's mission to "organize the world's information."

It's difficult now to imagine a world without Google. But Stross, a keen observer of the corporate tech scene in such previous books as eBoys, which looked at venture capitalists, reveals that the search giant's rise was far from inevitable. Just after joining Google in 1999, Marissa Mayer, now vice-president for search products and user experience, discovered co-founder Larry Page hiding in a kitchen while the site was down, seemingly unable to confront the problem. Mayer decided then that the company had only a 2% chance of succeeding. But it turned out Google had come along at the right time: The World Wide Web was exploding, and new methods were needed to sift through all of its information.

Google's search wizards also made the most of their timing. With an innovative approach to using cheap computers, writes Stross, "they assembled a computing infrastructure that effectively permitted Google to move in many directions simultaneously, without worrying that they would run out of horsepower." And precisely because the company charges nothing for most of its services, which range from e-mail to video sharing, those services grow popular fast and bolster Google's mainstay search-advertising business. "The great irony is that their shunning of conventional cost-accounting considerations," with free spending on infrastructure and more, "has enabled the rapid emergence of one of the most profitable businesses of the modern era," writes Stross.

That has enabled Google to thrive despite a number of stumbles. When it tried to use its exalted algorithm—the formula by which it delivers relevant search results—on its Google News service, it fell far short of the efforts of human editors at sites such as Yahoo! (YHOO) News. "In this case, algorithm met humanity, and humanity won," notes Stross. Nor has Google found a way to make significant money from big bets such as its enormously popular YouTube video-sharing site.

But if such failures have scarcely affected Google's growth, it now faces new challenges. YouTube and other initiatives, such as a massive book-scanning project, antagonized potential media partners, who accuse it of violating copyrights. Privacy concerns have dogged services such as its e-mail offering, which targets ads to the content of messages, and Google Street View, which offers detailed ground-level photos of many cities. And Stross shows how Google's sometimes cavalier attitude has led to a backlash. "When a single company is determined to organize the world's information, including one's very own personal information," he asks, "will the service be welcomed more than feared?"

It's unfortunate that Stross, who interviewed CEO Eric Schmidt but not co-founders Page and Sergey Brin, doesn't give a clearer answer to that question. Pushback against Google's increasing power is now the company's key challenge. Today, for instance, Google, which commands at least 63% of Internet search queries, faces intense antitrust scrutiny over an ad deal it announced last June with distant No. 2 search provider Yahoo. Another significant omission from the book: an exploration of the methodology of Google's awesome ad business, where a cloak of secrecy has rankled advertisers. Despite those shortcomings, Planet Google ably delivers the story of how Google so quickly reached a position of such power that it now must figure out how to wield it more wisely.

Hof is BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau chief.

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