Google. Google. Google.
A company name practically synonymous with the Internet. A company name demonstrating the reign of numbers and engineers. A company name delighting the masses and frightening the powerful.
Has a year passed since 2000 in which the Mountain View company hasn’t caused an uproar among traditional companies? We are nowadays accustomed to equate Google with progress and power, but as any other company, Google once was small, operating from a garage. What were they like, these years at the dawn of the Internet? When AltaVista, AOL, Yahoo and Pets.com were still names to be reckoned with? When there was no YouTube, no Facebook, no social media at all? (However, Amazon already existed. Fun fact: In 1999, Jeff Bezos was already in a cozy enough financial position to become one of Google’s first investors.) What were the key ideas behind this new search engine when several already existed? How would it monetize? What would be its impact on traditional content delivery?
Questions upon questions. Big questions. Questions about the key change of our times: the digital wave sweeping us all along with it. A wave Google like almost no other company rides.
These are some of the key questions renowned business journalist Ken Auletta, a contributor to The New Yorker, sets out not to answer, but to meticulously discuss in his 2009 book “Googled. The End of the World as We Know It.” The book is partly a company biography for the years 1999-2010, partly a snapshot of the change taking place in the business world due to the arrival of the Internet, of which Google is one of the most foremost agents.
I’ve listened to Auletta’s soft and gentle voice on NewYorker.com podcasts and am glad to say that his writing is like his speech: quiet, gentle, informed. He treats the company challenging his livelihood like no other with fairness. He accurately depicts the amazing breakthrough of the PageRank algorithm and the profound impact it had on the elemental functionality of the Internet. On the other hand, as a business journalist with decade-long experience, he, more, assumably, than Google’s founders, is able to empathize with traditional companies fearing for their core business and politically alert experts fearing an erosion of privacy.
Google’s impact on the attitude toward privacy among its Silicon Valley followers and other competitors also features prominently. This data gold rush leads to an acceleration of data mining and selling and agreements that demand of customers to give up their data in return for reduced prices. Or no prices at all. The Web is a web of human behaviour, which is what makes it so valuable to advertisers. Google knows all of the web, which is why it’s the most powerful player in the advertising business ever.
Auletta rhetorically asks where the wave is taking old media and where it’s taking Google. In the end, nobody can know. But, at least for a while, Google is likely to remain the main power on the Internet to be reckoned with.
I love Business books. I really do. There’s so much about human nature to be found in there! I’m especially fond of books about Silicon Valley. I’ve read Michael Lewis’s “The New New Thing” about SV founding father Jim Clark, who was involved in the founding of Silicon Graphics and Netscape. I’ve read The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick. I’ve read The Start-Up Game by W.H. Draper III, which takes you into the money flow pumping through the veins of the digital economy. I’ve read One Click. Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com by Richard L. Brandt and am in the process of reading a lengthier account of the Amazon story by Brad Stone. Of course, I’ve read Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Auletta’s book on Google is as exciting a read as any of them. As in the others, you get a feel of the power of human enterprise, which is embodied in the American national character.
Here’s my recommended SV reading list with links: