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Friday, May 18, 2007

Book review: The Search by John Battelle

The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture

I’m most intrigued by this book by some of the startling revelations on how Google came to be a business, let alone a billion dollar one, that it is today. Most captivating though, was a quote I read in Tom Peter’s Re-imagine. It went something like this: “Google is a bit like God.”

That for me, from outside the pages of The Search by John Battelle, summarised that 300-word paperback in six words. And when I think of it, although a dicey exaggeration, Google shares elements with something a lot more powerful than many modern day blue chips combined.

From the book though, I got the idea that, Google, at least as a business that it is today, is one big accident that happened in a bedroom (dorm). The technology that Google runs on is not necessarily Google's exclusively (the spider-index architecture including the business model).

The author, a dotcom crash martyr, tells a story of two Burger King fans, Larry Edward Page and Sergey Brin and how they took a myriad of ideas of other people, added their youthfull chutzpah and vision to turn them into what is now Google - the second fastest growing tech company in the US.

The main guy, who for me took prominence in the book than the star Phd student pair, was Bill Gross. Gross is credited, based on the author’s research, on inventing the business model of pay-per-click advertising and in fact, leveraged the few other models that failed other companies. His (company) was not a lasting start-child success because it lacked the advantage of Google – search. On search is where the ‘paranoid’ but ‘arrogant’ Brin and Page sold their text ads. And this was leveraged with Gross’ business model. (Google is obviously expanding to other types of ads placement which are more display driven).

But to Google, there is nothing more profitable than text ads. That’s where their bread is buttered and Battelle, seems to suggest, fittingly so, that they owe it all to Gross – the father of pay-per-click. “Indeed, had Bill Gross not given up his argument, had he just followed his gut, there might not even be a Google. Brin and Page might have sold out to Yahoo or Excite or Microsoft, or merged with Ask Jeeves, or gone the way of AltaVista – sinking slowly into the dark oceans of corporate M&A."

On the more cultural transformation side of the Google blinding gold coin, Battelle illustrates vividly what Google seems to achieve: reaching millions not only with search, but a critical cocktail of technological convergences. A global cultural situation where only two men, plus their ‘puppet’ CEO, control what is today the largest database of human knowledge and culture - the "Database of Intentions". It all sits on their fingertips and to paraphrase Battelle, ‘we hope they never get a tempting incentive to sell or hand this sea of information in the devilish hands’. Hopefully, they only hold the keys to the over 130 000 computers that run Google.

Gross 'expertly' convinces you that Google owns the total human clickstream (and you better believe him, unless you also had a lunch with the three musketeers at Google HQ). They own the pulse of the very existence of global business, if not of mankind. And Battelle convinces you to start worrying about government’s bullish interference and the control of such ‘google’ (endless) data. Impressively enough, or scary if you like, Google is said to have grand intentions of turning search into something that has a ‘heartbeat’ of its own. Meaning that it must morphosise to a near-human intelligent ‘being’ that can read what the user/searcher wants and serve it not only the way you wanted it, but tell you what you wanted but did no know you wanted.

For all the techies, try and converge all the internet and web technologies of today, then stir them together with all the Google innovations in a Google blender and drink – tell me the results. We may not leave to tell the showdown in our lifetime (neither may Brin and Page, or better yet, Gross himself). I think the answer there treads sheepishly alongside the concept of “God” – so guess that somebody in Tom Peter’s book may have a point of the potential power in Google.

PS: Google shot from zero to 3 billion dollars from 2000-2004 (‘one nickel at a time’).

For me, The Search was a great read. As educational, informative and scary as Google and search are.

"Judge of a man by his questions, rather than by his answers." - Voltaire

1 comment:

Melt du Plooy said...

Izz, your book review sounds awesome, I will go out and see if i can find it.