As I write this, I have literally just closed the cover on John Battelle's new book, The Search. Reading it was a unique experience for me. It was addictive, like literary crack. I devoured it in huge gulps. I can't recall the last time I read a book in such a short time.
Look, They're Writing About Us!
For the last 10 years, the part of my life not devoted to my wife and kids has been consumed with search. So reading the book was like reading a family history. I knew many of the people quoted. I had lived through the history recounted. I even found a quote from myself in the book.
I've never met John Battelle, but as I read, it was like he had crawled into my brain, picked up things I've been thinking about for years, then rendered them whole with much more skill and eloquence than I could ever possibly manage.
Today the Web, Tomorrow the World
The Search is unlike any previous book written on search. There have been several "how to" books that have explored the mechanics of search, both from a user's and marketer's perspective. But Battelle for the first time explores search as a business and social phenomenon. Not only that, Battelle muses that this might be THE social phenomenon, with world shattering implications. For anyone who has grown up in search, it's like seeing your high school sweetheart become a world famous centerfold. "See, I told you she was hot. No one believed me!" It's public confirmation of everything we've been trying to tell people for a decade.
Battelle has some how managed to get access to the people that literally invented the industry. He has obviously immersed himself in the world of search, but has brought a 50,000 foot view that allows him to explore a much larger picture from a slightly different perspective. He looks at what search may evolve to become. As the founder of Wired and The Industry Standard, he has the journalistic chops to dig out the good stuff and get it right, but he maintains a wide eyed wonder at the sheer enormity of the social implications.
A Peak inside Google's Kimono
What emerges is a fascinating glimpse into search as an emerging phenomenon, and a particularly astute look inside the relatively private world of Google. As regular readers of this column know, I've devoted more than a few words to the perplexing company. What if, Battelle asks us to consider, Google is the next evolution of the company? What if, for all the naysayers, Brin and Page can actually pull off what they say they can?
I remember telling someone at a conference once that Google alternatively strikes me as pure genius, and as the proverbial room of monkeys randomly striking at typewriters. The truth, according to Battelle, is that Google is both. The monkeys are the genius. And the hope is that in the process they'll reinvent everything.
Google, formed in the petri dish of hypergrowth unlike anything ever seen before, is either heading for the world's largest comeuppance, or they may just change the world. The typical corporate structure never had a chance to take, as Google frantically tried to keep up a world that was demanding what they had to offer. Combine this with Page and Brin's acknowledged brilliance, arrogance and determination to build a different company and you have a very unique corporation that is either perched on top of a bubble that could burst at any moment, or one that could rewrite all the rules of success. Although Battelle is remarkably even handed in his portrayal, there's no doubt that he's rooting for Brin and Page.
Google's Recipe for Success
Google is advancing on a thousand different fronts at once. Brin and Page have built a company that worships at the alter of technology, and the high priests are legions of engineers, all given explicit instructions to invent something cool. There is little in the way of top down strategy. Page is quoted as saying that he's not a big believer in strategy. Rather, the Google Brin and Page envision is a support system for rampant entrepreneurialism, with grass roots innovation ultimately driving the direction of the company. The multi million dollar Founders' Award attaches heavy bonuses to this activity, giving employees a reason to stay in the corporate nest, rather than striking out with their own companies, ultimately hoping to be acquired again by Google.
But a paradox lies at the heart of Google. For all its encouragement of grassroots innovation, Google is also portrayed in the book as a serfdom, with Brin and Page as the iron fisted and mercurial overlords prone to micromanaging. There is one particularly vivid scene where CEO Eric Schmidt finds Brin shaking at his desk, suffering through a bad back, meticulously pouring through over 500 applications for internal development projects, to see which will get his stamp of approval.
Despite the name, The Search is not just another search book. It's a probing look at the crux of what makes the Internet such a powerful force for change. It explores the fabric of our society, and makes us realize that fabric could be ripped apart but forces already unleashed by technology. I'm not sure it will be as compelling a read for those outside the industry. Like most things to do with search, there will likely be more who say "Huh?" than "Wow!"
Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
November 2, 2005
Gord Hotchkiss is President and CEO of Enquiro, Canada's leading search engine marketing firm and one of the top firms in North America. His articles are regularly published in both on and off line newsletters, including Marketing Monitor, SEOToday, Marketing and many other trade journals. Enquiro's own information portal is www.searchengineposition.com.
With an extensive 20 year background in the marketing and advertising business, Gord has been working to increase client's search engine visibility since 1996 and has specialized in search engine marketing since 1999.
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