Book Review: The Search: How Google and its rivals rewrote the rules and transformed our culture

The Search: How Google and its rivals rewrote the rules and transformed our culture by John Battelle.
Published by Nicholas Brealey.
Price: £16.99.
ISBN: 1857883616.

What exactly is so great about Google? This is a question that, if asked, most people who use the company’s search engine daily would probably fail to answer. They use Google because it’s a name they know, because they have almost always used it, because a friend recommended it and said it is great.

Google’s dramatic breakthrough in search was only made eight years ago – the company was formed in September 1998 – but its brand is already so strong, and its influence so extensive and pervasive, that its remarkable story is only just beginning to be digested by the business and technology world.

Google and its two co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have made it onto the covers of a long list of A-grade business publications. That is partly because, with a volatile market value of more than $100 billion, it is one of the biggest stories in Wall Street; it is partly because Google has found itself in some enormously controversial situations – such as having to decide whether to censor Chinese content, or conform to the US government’s request to hand over user search data. But it is largely because this story is simply so extraordinary that editors are still asking how and why it happened. This, curiously, is further fuelled by the fact that its quirky founders have, until now, eschewed many normal business practices – including seeking publicity.

In The Search: How Google and its rivals rewrote the rules and transformed our culture, John Battelle tells the story of Google from its conception as a project at Stanford University through to its unconventional but enormously successful public flotation, by auction, in August 2004. He tells how the founders came across their ranking methods by applying to the web the peer-review processes of academic papers; how Silicon Valley technology entrepreneur Andy Bechtolsheim casually wrote out a $100,000 cheque for seed capital after a short ad hoc demo on a doorstep in 1998; and how the company, as it moved from garage to GooglePlex, swore to “Do No Evil” but found itself neither seeing it nor hearing it in China.

But much of this is widely known. The value of this book lies more in Battelle’s perspective and in his views (even if you do not always agree with him). As a respected journalist and commentator, and one of the Silicon Valley ‘digirati’ himself (he is a co-founder of Wired and the now-defunct Industry Standard magazine), Battelle is a highly qualified, but unusually self-conscious narrator; he appears almost anxious to show he is not just a ‘Googlebot’, and that his interests lie in the wider search industry and its implications for business.

As a result, this book is far better, and far more analytical, than most of the many corporate biographies that Silicon Valley has spawned. Yet try as he does to resist being drawn in, he also comes across as very much the ‘True Believer’, frequently digressing into awe-inspired discussions of the power of search to change the world. In his view, ecommerce and search enable each other.

This book was written before Google’s share price began to tumble, and some of its business practices, and decisions, began to make it look mortal, but recent events would not, in any case, have dimmed Battelle’s belief that not only is search the most important application of the information age, but that Google, at the centre of this, is the most important company to come out of it.

“Google has become a canvas upon which we project every application or service that we can imagine might arise in our increasingly digital future,” he writes. And he may, of course, be right.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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