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March 12, 2006

Book Review – The Search

John Battelle’s The Search was published in 2005 when Google could seemingly do no wrong.  But he was prescient in predicting some of the problems the company has faced this year.

Battelle chronicles an earlier Google blink in the face of Chinese pressure:  In 2004 Google took news sources banned by the Chinese government out of the Chinese-language edition of Google News.  He says that Google then began inviting the “world’s foremost experts on China to its Mountain View Campus… Google had one question on its mind: how can we go into China and not be evil?”

“In China,” Battelle predicted, “Google may have finally found a situation in which it’s Don’t Be Evil motto cannot stand.”  We now know he was right.  BTW, last week Battelle posted an update on Google in China which indicates that Google may still be trying to stand up to the People’s Republic.

In a fascinating comparison with Yahoo, Battelle starts with the observation that employee lunch is free at Google but not at the other place.  “Why is there no free lunch at Yahoo?” he asks.  “In 2001, Yahoo got smacked upside its head by the markets, and was nearly written off as a company,” he answers and points out that Yahoo stock plunged from highs of over $500 to less than $10. “…Google has never known anything except success. The only thing Google has failed to do, so far, is fail.”  Google certainly hasn’t failed yet.  It has “disappointed the Street” which it hadn’t done at the time The Search was published.  We’ll see how Google copes with that.

Battelle is very good on future vulnerabilities of Google; some of these are:

It’s unusual top-executive triumvirate;

All the usual problems of hypergrowth;

Reconciliation of responsibility to make money for stock holders with its “Don’t be Evil” motto;

Innovating in the face of relentless competition;

Clickfraud;

Increased government seizure of user-specific search date leading to a general reluctance to use a search engine and leave a click stream behind; and

The possibility of a successful suit against Google’s practice of selling trademarked terms as AdWords.

The last point is by no means academic.  Battelle cites two pending suits against the practice filed by American Blinds and, much more formidable, Warren Buffet’s Geico.  “…if its adversaries win, Google will be in the position of policing every trademark in the world, and losing an untold amount of revenue in the process.”  Moreover, Battelle speculates, win or lose, negative publicity from the lawsuit could damage Google much the way that Microsoft’s reputation was damaged in its long fight with the Justice Department.

A Google strength which is not usually given enough attention is the Internet-like architecture of its dispersed server farm.  One of the reasons Google has been able to grow successfully is that its service has coped successfully with growth.  Battelle understands the engineering decisions which were made early on and which still serve the company well.

The Search isn’t only about Google even though the company dominates the book the way it currently dominates the search industry.  You’ll like the stories of the companies that coulda but didn’t become Google, coulda but didn’t buy Google. 

You’ll learn a lot about search, itself.  I hadn’t thought about the distinction between “discovery” – finding something new – and “recovery” – finding your way back to something you found before and want to see again.  I use search for both and bet you do to.  Recovery, of course, is best done if the search engine has your past click stream.  In fact, click streams could also be valuable in figuring out what you are really after in a DISCOVERY search.  Battelle thinks click streams are a big part of the future of search.

[Full disclosure: this blog, Fractals of Change, is a member of the authors’ network Federated Media which was founded and is run by John Battelle.]

I posted about my experience in the early days of search technologies..

I also posted some unsolicited advice to Google on dealing with a declining stock price.

And I posted on a disagreement between John Battelle and his publisher, Penguin, about making The Search available on Google Book Search.

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