How Google and Its Rivals
Rewrote the Rules of Business
and Transformed Our Culture
By John Battelle
Portfolio; 311pp; $25.95
The Good An intriguing look at Google and its rivals, notably in their early years.
The Bad There's little that's new in the account of Google's more recent history.
The Bottom Line Worthwhile for its insights on how the Google craze got started.
Google Inc.'s (GOOG ) breathtaking success makes it difficult to recollect the search startup of five years ago: a cash-burning outfit with no business model, teetering one misguided decision away from the dot-com rubble. Indeed, had co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin followed conventional wisdom of the time -- and the advice of consultants -- and launched a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign in early 2000, Google could well have run out of money before it had a chance to mine the gold.
The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture by John Battelle provides a compelling glimpse of the search industry's early years, covering the terrain and characters that contributed to Google's almost happenstance rise. But Battelle, who co-founded Wired and launched the now-defunct Industry Standard, sheds little new light on the modern-day Internet juggernaut in the months stretching from its tumultuous initial public offering to the present.
Written with the same cool-oozing verve that was a hallmark of his two magazines, Battelle marvels at the vast potential of Internet search. Sick of all the hoopla surrounding Google and its competitors? Just get used to it. For the first time in human history, we not only have uncounted terabits of information at our fingertips, but a large sampling of our wants, needs, fears, and desires are also being funneled in the form of search queries into the same place: the computer records of Google and its rivals. Battelle is awestruck by this aggregate digital artifact, which he dubs "the Database of Intentions." As Internet companies better understand our intentions and as search pervades everything from our PCs to TVs to cell phones, the power of the technology becomes intriguing -- and a little scary.
Although Battelle frames the book with this riff, penning bookend chapters that provide a far-reaching picture of how search will affect our lives, the bulk of The Search is about Google -- and some of its back story. Many readers may already be familiar with the tale of early search pioneers, such as AltaVista, whose rise and fall set the stage for Google; or GoTo.com, which revolutionized the business model of search with targeted pay-per-click ads. Even so, in Battelle's hands the tale is worth reading again. Full of color from firsthand interviews, it helps answer the basic question: How did Google jump so far ahead in this seemingly obvious bonanza of a market?
A familiarity with technology will help the reader: Acronyms such as WANs, LANs, and URLs tend to show up unexplained. However, Battelle's elucidation of early search technologies, and of Google's 1998 leapfrogging of the competition by analyzing the very links that connect the Web, is surprisingly easy to digest.
Most tantalizing for Google aficionados will probably be the handful of early Google e-mails from 1997-98 unearthed by the author. Although only in their mid-20s at the time and operating out of Page's Stanford University dorm room, the two founders display a bullheadedness that borders on arrogance. In one exchange, Page seems to lecture Silicon Valley legend Vinod Khosla on market dynamics as the venture capitalist prods the duo to sell their technology to now-defunct Internet portal Excite for $750,000. Page's asking price: $1.6 million.
Such headstrong ways, in retrospect, seem to mark Page and Brin for success. Even a glimmer of self-doubt, after all, could have sabotaged the founders' seemingly naive decision to forgo an early marketing blitz or their choice not to clutter Google's pages with splashy banner ads. But stubbornness has also contributed to deep controversy: The company rankled Wall Street last year by eschewing a traditional IPO in favor of an auction of its shares and by vowing to operate in a different way from other public companies. And Google riled publishers this year with its aggressive efforts to scan, digitize, and facilitate searches of millions of books, despite cries of copyright abuse by some.
Readers hoping for a new and insightful glimpse into such present-day Google topics, however, will be disappointed. Perhaps the author was stymied by the fact that Google, after leaning on the press for years to generate buzz, has now become one of Silicon Valley's most secretive outfits. Battelle, despite snaring numerous interviews with top brass, didn't come away with much to help flesh out the book's second half. For instance, the chapter on Google's IPO, perhaps the most covered business news event of 2004, is almost entirely devoid of new material.
Still, The Search is a worthwhile read for the illumination it offers on just how the Google craze got started in the first place. The answer is more interesting than you may remember.
By Ben Elgin