Good guys finish way in front - or, how to index all of the information in the world and still do no evil...
Stephen Walsh reviews "The Google Story", by David A. Vise.
If you were trying to pitch it as a movie, even the most caffeinated Hollywood exec would write it off as too far-fetched: Two Stanford geeks start a research project to improve search engines. Everyone tells them that search is dead, at best a commodity, it’s all about portals. They disagree, and embark on a mission to do it better.
They form a company and move into a friend’s garage. They forget to incorporate it until a venture capitalist reminds them that’s kind of important. They hire a few people. They adopt the motto “Do no evil” and seem to mean it. Seven years later, they are worth $10 billon each and their company is larger than McDonalds, General Motors and Disney. They cause Bill Gates to spit blood on an hourly basis. Most importantly to its founders, the company is trusted by its hundreds of millions of users and has become the only search engine anyone uses (really – do you know anyone who still, er, Yahoos?).
But of course, it’s all true and “The Google Story” by David A.Vise lays tells the tale. It’s a fun, fast and informative read. It begins at the beginning and follows the rollercoaster (actually no, rollercoasters eventually descend – more like Willy Wonka elevator) ride that Stanford friends and co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have taken the world on since embarking on that research project in 1998.
Seek and ye shall find...
This is not a geek manual. There’s enough technical information to keep the story moving without losing the reader in code waffle. You learn in a very simple way why their approach to search was superior to others. The PageRank model, whereby a search returns web pages in order of their popularity (based on how many other pages linked to it), was the start of project Google and the cornerstone of its differentiation. Yahoo returned searches based at least in part by how much you paid to be listed. Brin and Page saw that as corrupt and their way as better. They believed from the start that better organisation of information is a public good, and any commercial gain was secondary at best, a distraction at worst. This seems a theme with them. Each step they’ve taken to build their empire has been as clear and unequivocal as one of the mathematical equations that they love so much. One of their colleagues even writes an equation to explain the whole phenomenon: “youth + freedom + transparency + new model + the general public’s benefit + belief in trust = The Miracle of Google”.
The Google story seems to be the mission to prove that equation from first principles. There’s a lot in the book about the culture of Google, which is compared to a university campus more often than a corporation. Most people work in teams of three to five maximum, and engineers are given “20% time”, one day a week in which to work on stuff that’s interesting to them, regardless of its commercial viability (of course most of them are more than viable).
IPO? Do we have to?
It’s also a business story. For the business reader, it’s fascinating to learn how venture capital firms, still reeling from the post dot com collapse, approached the infant Google with great suspicion, but found the founders and their ideas irresistible. One lesson from the book – no matter how brilliant your science or engineering credentials, you need a business person to talk to Wall Street and lead your company into IPO. The one stipulation the VCs put on Google – hire a CEO. They eventually did (but not without moaning about it). When Eric Schmidt finally took on the role, Google was still using Quicken to do its accounting and payroll. Quicken’s fine if you’re doing your personal taxes or an owner manager. By then Google had over 200 employees and $20 million in revenue. Larry and Sergey (always first names at Google, even in their IPO offering documents) just couldn’t be bothered with that sort of stuff.
That strand follows through to the IPO in August 2004 – one of the biggest in history, and done like no other, using a Dutch auction approach to make stock available to everyone who could afford it, not just institutional investors. It’s not right to suggest the Google guys were techhies with no business acumen – it turns out they were incredibly sharp dealmakers, partnering with competitors to make their search engine the backroom for Ask Jeeves, Yahoo, AOL and thousands of affiliates.
It all clicks now...
It also answers a question that most of its daily users have asked at some point: how does Google make any money? Vise sees Google as just like any other media corporation in that regard: advertising. Lots of. Again the Google adwords model is described simply – Advertisers pay per click through, not for placing the ad. Users get ads relevant to their search, not those that cost the most to list. Again a key lesson: scale is everything. Even if it’s only 5 cents a click through, if 100 million searches take place every day, and one in 10 searchers click on an ad – well, you do the maths. Comes out at a nice figure.
It’s not a complete hagiography. There is some objective description of their mistakes – launching gmail so close to the IPO and facing fierce criticism from privacy advocates in response to the idea that Google computers would read every email and serve up ads based on words in the emails, complaints from advertisers about corrupt clicking on their ads by competitors, even the odd multi million dollar court settlement. But they stand out because they seem so infrequent and out of character.
It’s a great story – in fact, it’s a better story than it is a great read. Prose is secondary to plot. Vise is a journalist, not a novelist. It’s a series of chapters that read like articles (maybe they were originally). There’s some odd jumping around – there’s a whole chapter on the Google chef that’s sandwiched (sorry) in-between the IPO and competitive wars with Microsoft. He acknowledges his access was limited. Nobody senior at Google spoke directly to him. He relied on conversations with other players, press releases, public information and - of course – what he could find on Google about Google. “This book – in many ways – could not have been written without Google”, as he puts it. (In any way, I think)
Finally, Vise has some fun predicting what’s next from Google. Think way beyond search. If rumours are to be believed, they’re looking into cheap space travel, googling the gene, and powering the human mind with a plug-in. Really? Well, probably not far off. These are some of the best minds in the world with a lot of money to play with and 20 per cent of their time to play in. You better be glad they don’t want to do evil….
It’s only a matter of time before this book really is a motion picture event. I predict a Matt Damon/Ben Affleck reunion to play Brin and Page. Now that really does take them into the axis of evil territory….
Get the book in the Kineo bookshop.