April 13, 2007

Vise, David A. and Mark Malseed. The Google story. New York: Delta, 2006. Updated Edition. 326pp.

Ah, Google. The 800 pound gorilla. The elephant in the room. The bull in the china shop. Really, the kings of the online world. And to think, just a few short years ago, nobody had ever heard of them. Myself, I remember starting to use Google in 1999 or so, when the buzz around library school was this cool new search engine that had way better relevance ranking and a sparse, clean design. By 2000 or 2001 I remember thinking to myself that their product was so impressive that they must have been a huge, thousand employee megacorporation. Little did I know that for most of those early years, Google was still a small, intimate, human-scaled company that very much reflected its founders, Stanford PhD students Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

Google has been around so long, at least in Internet time, and has been so prominent and omnipresent in the media with so much detailed reporting on blogs and in newspapers and magazines, that I tend to think I know the story. But do I? Are there things that I don't know about the giant? As it turns out, yes, there were a lot of things I didn't know about Google and Vise & Malseed's book does a great job of filling in the blanks. And a lot of aspects of Google's story, both bits I knew and bits I didn't, have significant lessons for the library world.

Of course, this is really a business book, not a tech book or a history of science book or even a library science book, so how did I end up with it on my sabbatical science book reading list? I remember when the book came out in hardcover there was quite a bit of press and I thought I would probably want to read it eventually, it and The search : the inside story of how Google and its rivals changed everything by John Battelle. Although the business library ordered it, I never got around to checking it out, figuring I would just buy the paperback when it came out. So, it comes out in paperback last fall, but since I never check the business section of the book store I never noticed. A few weeks ago, while we were at the airport waiting for our flight to New York for our March Break trip, I was browsing at the airport bookstore. Now, airport bookstores are pretty small; they also cater to business travelers more than regular folk so the pb version of The Google Story was fairly prominently displayed at the front of the store. And I bought it and read most of it during the trip. Which makes me wonder, doesn't classification sometimes make it harder rather than easier to find something? And sometimes, a small, focused collection can lead to more serendipity that a big huge comprehensive collection. See, even how I found the book and ended up reading it have a lesson.

But, enough of the chatter. How's the book itself? Is it worth reading? Like I said, I would like to concentrate on the parts of the Google story that were interesting or new to me and how I think those apply to the Library world.

The first thing that really struck me (in chapter 3) was that in the early years a number of companies had a chance to license Google technology and passed it up. Altavista wanted a home-grown search solution while Yahoo! wanted people to stay on their own site rather than searching and leaving. The didn't realize how important search was, so they missed a golden opportunity. Chapter 8 goes into that idea in more detail, how most people in the business world really discounted the importance of search, thinking it was a nice add-on to other core products and services. It was the Google guys that really say the truth here and stuck it out. What things are libraries missing out on due to shortsightedness?

Another thing that really struck me in chapter 8 was the internal struggle as Google experienced explosive growth, to keep the edge and innovative spirit while somehow learning to run the company professionally and keep an eye on organizational issues. It was this 2000-2001 time frame that I mention above.

The next thing to really strike me was the AskJeeves story in chapter 11. Google licensed its ad relevancy software to AskJeeves, to the immense benefit of both companies. I thought this was interesting because two companies that you would think were rivals competing for the same search eyeballs somehow found a way to collaborate and make each of their slices of the pie bigger -- including making a bigger pie. A lesson here for us all -- cooperate and grow or compete and die? Who do we think are our enemies that should be our friends? Google?

Chapter 12 was a big one for me -- where the authors talk about Google's 20% rule. Every employee gets to work one day a week on blue sky projects, things outside the box, the stuff we see in Google Labs. Ultimately, people with ideas have to find others to work on them and to make a case for using more resources than just the 20% time to get the product out the door. But still, the culture of innovation this kind of idea fosters is amazing. Lessons? You bet. Top to bottom, if we want to succeed everyone has to think about innovation and get heard by administrators. Chapter 18 talks about the idea of having a corporate executive chef to make everyone's meals for them. Just creating a environment that's conducive to innovation, no matter what it takes.

On the other hand, a little misinformation is never a bad thing in a business book, especially one on a company with such overpowering ideals. On page 134 talking about the Google News service, the authors quote an engineer that mentions that before Google News, journalists had no way of searching other news sources for information. Of course, we librarians know this is hogwash. Lexis Nexis and its kind aren't free like Google but any journalist working for even a decent sized paper would have had access to it. Sometimes Google would like you to think that only it can provide good information, but sometimes they "ignore" inconvenient truths. Other imperfections that do get some coverage include privacy concerns with advertising in Gmail, censorship of information flowing into China and Google's role in that, some bumps in the road when they went public perhaps betraying an unhealthy arrogance on the part of Brin and Page, the cutthroat nature of the battle with Microsoft, another whiff of arrogance when they talk about Google's role in getting genomic data freely available.

Overall, though, I have to say that this is quite a good book, written in a breezy, journalistic style. Google's story is intimately connected to the story of the early part of the 21st century and we ignore its lessons at our peril: everything is driven by a crazy, intense level of nonstop innovation; search is king; connections between data points can be as important as the data itself, if not more important; share the wealth. Google is a reality, we have to deal with it's implications on our work and personal lives. Its impact is vastly for the better, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep an eye on them. Their pride and arrogance can lead to a fall -- putting all our eggs in one basket could be risky.

No comments: