Thursday, November 08, 2007

Suddenly Seeking Search Engine

Cross-posted at Map of the Informatique.

At work, I've been asked to train one of the library board members on "advanced Google searching". I'm not entirely sure what he means by that (the training session has yet to materialize), but I suspect he wants to go somewhat beyond typing one or two words into Google's search field.

In the hopes of providing a full exploration of the topic, and to show exactly why I'm worth the (not so) big bucks they're paying, I've been doing a bit of research on the Google phenomenon. Two books on the search engine king were released in 2005, probably to capitalize on Google's initial public offering and some of the fallout in the year following that seemed to tarnish the seemingly-untouchable lustre of the Internet's fasting-rising company and its likeable founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page (as of October 2007, both men are tied for 26th richest person in the world, worth about $16.6 billion US each). I read one at the time, that being The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, by John Battelle. Like many non-fiction authors these days, Battelle maintained a website detailing some of his research and writing, and continues to use the site to promote his book as well as blog on internet search more generally.

The other book, which I just finished, was The Google Story: Inside the Hottest Business, Media, and Technology Success of Our Time, by David A. Vise and Mark Malseed, whose authors also maintain a website.

Both books are valuable for anyone who wants to learn more about the current master of internet search, and complement each other very well. Both books focus on Google and how it used internet search, a feature the rest of the internet industry had dismissed as useless and unprofitable, to rise above the bursting of the dot-com bubble and become the fastest-rising technology company in history. But I would call The Google Story more of a business biography, while Battelle's book is more of technological history.

Vise and Malseed focus on Brin and Page and the business they built, from their fated meeting in the computer science graduate program at Stanford, to the humble beginnings of Google on campus, tracing the company's development to its IPO and some of its legal and public image troubles following that, ending with some of Brin and Page's hopes for the future of search. While the account is thorough, there is a mood of triumphalism that permeates the text, a narrative of two smart kids with a new idea done good. The focus is more on how Google transformed business culture with its very different approach. Brin and Page, academics and the children of academics, run Google more like a college campus than a business (the PageRank system at the core of Google's search technology is based on the citing practices and impact factors of academic journal articles). One of their more revolutionary practices is the 20% rule. In the academic world, professors are given 20% of their time (generally, one day a week) away from lecturing and administrative work to work on their own research and projects. Employees at Google are also given 20% of their time to work on their own projects. Sometimes these go nowhere, but other times they result in new applications like Froogle and Google News. Vise and Malseed even devote a chapter to Google's former head chef, Employee #53, Charlie Ayers, as part of their description of Google's corporate culture. Google is also known for its humour, evidenced by its regular April Fools Day jokes and the Google Labs Aptitude Test, or GLAT, a spoof of the battery of standard tests used by other firms.

Meanwhile, Battelle begins with the history of internet search, tracing the development of some of Google's more noteworthy forefathers, from Archie at McGill University, to the web's "first truly good search engine", AltaVista, to those other two Stanford PhDs at Yahoo!, Jerry Yang and David Filo. While the spotlight of his text then shifts to Google, his overall focus is on internet search and search engines. In the mid and late-90s, other dot-coms were trying to build "portals", which were actually destinations. The idea was to draw in users and keep them on the site, which was awash in visual and pop-up ads. Anyone who remembers Yahoo!, Excite and Altavista back then remembers the slew of ads, internal links and flashy banner ads splashed over every square inch of the site. Search was seen as just another service provided by the portal, along with email, personal ads, weather reports, and so on.

Along comes Google with its bare bones white screen and a single search field, but that simple field offered the keys to the World Wide Web. While others were adding to the clutter of the internet's closet, Google provided the sense of organization to all that clutter, while making billions from advertising that was so unobtrusive, few people recognized the ads when they saw them. In just a few short years, the search engine named for the impossibly large number garnered the greatest brand recognition in the online world, even becoming a verb related to internet searching in the process (e.g., "I Googled him last night").

Both books offer a very comprehensive coverage of Google's rise and dominance of the market, while focusing on different aspects of the company. The Google Story, true to its title, is a biographical narrative of the company's "life", largely holding to a tone of triumphalism throughout. Only in a handful of later chapters, when discussing threats to Google's public image and through the courts, is the clarion call muted. The Search is more illustrative of the search technologies involved, without getting overly technical, and is probably more interesting to my fellow library and information science professionals.

Google continues to maintain a high profile in the public eye, as even the company's former masseuse is ready to tell her story:

Bonnie Brown was fresh from a nasty divorce in 1999, living with her sister and uncertain of her future. On a lark, she answered an ad for an in-house masseuse at Google, then a Silicon Valley start-up with 40 employees. She was offered the part-time job, which started out at $450 a week but included a pile of Google stock options that she figured might never be worth a penny.

After five years of kneading engineers’ backs, Ms. Brown retired, cashing in most of her stock options, which were worth millions of dollars. To her delight, the shares she held onto have continued to balloon in value.

“I’m happy I saved enough stock for a rainy day, and lately it’s been pouring,” said Ms. Brown, 52, who now lives in a 3,000-square-foot house in Nevada, gets her own massages at least once a week and has a private Pilates instructor. She has traveled the world to oversee a charitable foundation she started with her Google wealth and has written a book, still unpublished,
Giigle: How I Got Lucky Massaging Google.