Book Review: In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy

In the Plex:
How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

By Steven Levy
Simon & Schuster; 432 pp; $26

 

It's of some interest that, in his own acknowledgments, Steven Levy thanks his subject for creating a "technological and cultural marvel" which helped him research his book. Yet it's more interesting that the book, written with his subject's cooperation, didn't turn out exactly as either the author or the company probably intended. While In the Plex offers a diligently reported look at a company with $169 billion in market capitalization, it inadvertently tells the story of how an audacious business became a corporate behemoth. Levy's subtitle isn't "Microsoft, the Later Years." It's "How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives."

Granted privileged access inside the Googleplex—the company's Mountain View (Calif.) headquarters—Levy shows that founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are suffering from the post-wunderkind blues. The duo, he writes, have been "sensitive to the charge that the company was a 'one-trick pony,'" unable to come up with anything that has even remotely matched the success of its "core combination of search and ads." Google (GOOG), it soon becomes clear, is going through the Silicon Valley equivalent of a mid-life crisis. Only seven years after going public, the company has essentially become a massive—and massively profitable—advertising delivery service. The concern for Brin and Page, though, is whether the best engineering is now taking place outside the Plex. Many of Google's hits—YouTube and Android among them—came following acquisitions. As did the technologies that eventually led to Google Docs, Google Voice, and key parts of Google Maps.

Even Google's extremely lucrative ad program, AdWords, wasn't its own turf. Levy tells the story of Bill Gross, the Googley-caliber innovator behind GoTo, which created a program where advertisers competed for placement in search. "To get your ad in the search results under a given keyword," Levy explains, "you had to outbid other advertisers in an auction." Sound familiar? Unfortunately, GoTo neglected to patent its technology. As Gross tells Levy, "We learned our lessons about patent protection."

Google's subsequent addiction to superimposing its ad algorithms all over the Web led to some philosophical miscalculations. In 2004, while Mark Zuckerberg was flip-flopping around Harvard, Google launched its first social network. "My dream was to connect all the Internet users so they can relate to each other," Google engineer Orkut Buyukkookten tells Levy. "It can make such a difference in people's lives." Named Orkut, it did just that, encouraging users to build their own profiles and create shared interest groups. Orkut became so popular so fast that it regularly overwhelmed the company's computers.

Oddly, Google let Orkut languish. "The basic premise of social networking—that a personal recommendation from a friend was more valuable than all of human wisdom, as represented by Google Search—was viewed with horror at Google," Levy explains. "Page and Brin had started Google on the premise that the algorithm would provide the only answer." Though Orkut became a hit in Brazil and India—which no one can quite explain—Google lost interest in fine-tuning it. The program got bloated and users moved on. "By the time Google switched Orkut's code base to a speedier infrastructure," Levy writes, "Facebook was beginning its rise."

As Levy shows, the Orkut misstep was part of a larger pattern. Over time, the company grew less focused on ordinary human interests. For example, when it launched its Android phone in 2008, Google didn't think it would be necessary to include customer support. "There's a very strong belief at Google that if the product is better, people will use it anyway," one executive explains to Levy. "You might want to talk to somebody. But are you going to stop using it? If we create better products, support isn't a differentiating factor."

As Facebook and Twitter have shown, however, creating environments where humans control the information flow is a differentiating factor. Google has been forced to play catch-up with Facebook, whose audacious idea may be the most Googley of all. Google is responding by trying to socialize the parts of the Web it already dominates, though Buzz, a status updater and photo sharer, hasn't caught on. Google's most recent response to Facebook's "like" option allows users to assign "+1" symbols to search results they like—which also sounds gratuitously algorithmic.

By the end of the book, the author and his subject realize something is amiss. "I just feel like people aren't working enough on impactful things. People are really afraid of failure on things," Page explains, "and so it's hard for them to do ambitious stuff." He may be onto something. Google, which sought to digitally organize all the world's information, is now mentioned in the same breath as companies that allow users to search for dining deals and emote in 140-character bursts. In the meantime, as its new CEO, Page is trying to bring the company back to its roots by pushing more audacious projects, like self-driving cars. And while that sounds pretty Googley, maybe human-driven cars work just fine.

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