Googled by Ken Auletta

The problem with books on start-ups, and their astoundingly rare rise to greatness, is that the important ones don’t always make for compelling reading. Google falls heavily into that category of historic success and, from the outside at least, creeping dullness. It’s a still quite young company full of programmers and executives with two obviously interesting elements, its eccentric founders.

Contrast this with the doomed gaze of Jerry Kaplan’s 1995 book Startup, on the gripping rise and demise of the now-forgotten pen computing innovator, Go Corp. Despite its smaller scale, that was a tense story of failure written from the inside, by the man who lived its fall and it deserves its classic status, even if it is out of print. Entrepreneurs read it and weep.

In technology, failure is interesting because it satisfies our need for dramatic closure. There is a full stop. Success is a harder story to tell, not least because unless it’s decades past, it is ongoing and there is the danger of making it all sound inevitable, which it surely never is, or was.

Google could have failed, indeed should have, but it not only survived but grew to be the first giant of the data age, knuckle-dusting bloated but rich software-obsessed predecessors such as Bill’s mob.

The well-researched and intelligent Googled (subtitle ‘the end of the world as we know it’) by Ken Auletta, knows why Google made it. It wasn’t the only search company around in 1998 when Page and Brin set up shop in a scrubby Valley office, but it was the only one willing to buck the conventional wisdom that search was all about giving consumers what the ad people wanted them to read. Google’s first stroke of brilliance was to devise algorithms that returned searches based on what was popular – on what common humanity found compelling – and let the ad people live with it.

Since then, as Googled documents in some detail, the company has turned into something altogether more complex, amassing a portfolio of projects and technologies that can look bafflingly diverse and unprofitable to the outsider. Google does a lot of stuff, indeed seems addicted to doing things even if they fail, but does this restlessness tell the world anything about the kind of company is it trying to be?

After interesting early chapters on the startup phase, Auletta makes a good case for the argument that Google is really a reinvention of the media giant in technological clothing, controlling the search patterns of billions of people, amassing data on what turns people on and off, and of directing people to content (invariably content made by others) that bypasses the business models of main street advertising houses, newspaper companies and cable companies alike.

Google is interested in consumers and what they do, and it devises platforms that satisfy this, working out how to make money later on. Every now and then it throws its rivals a bomb or two, with Android, Chrome, Gmail and Google Apps being good examples of how it enables its own possibilities while de-mobilising its enemies.

One understandable weakness of Googled is its US focus, as if the rest of the world’s media, technology, regulators and vested interests are touched by Google by virtue of its North American domination. They aren’t and shouldn’t be taken for granted because Google’s biggest competitors and enemies might yet lie outside the US.

There’s also nothing on the way that the search market Google dominates has had pernicious effects, including making it much easier for data-stealing criminals as well as advertisers to find easy marks for malicious software. Google is not the only one implicated in this – the whole Web 1.0 and 2.0 deal is in on this aspect – but as the market leader it hasn’t always seemed responsive to security concerns unless pushed.

The later chapters deal with the controversy over whether Google is killing the media, accidentally or deliberately, and concludes that the media have really been killing themselves with inertia.

This is a fair argument but some of the more long-term battles have been happening elsewhere. It took Apple to decide that the future of content was indeed ‘e’ but just not in the form it was being served to people. Web browsers and laptops are not really great ways to consume paid-for news content, for instance, but the publishing and tech industries have until the iPad’s coming seemed determined to ignore this obvious flaw.  

Perhaps the great Google read that has yet to be written is not a simple if detailed recounting of Google’s history, but of what drives its two founders and why they seem to out of sorts in the tech industry. There have been attempts to do this but it might take their retreat from day-to-day Google like to make this worth doing.

The world knows what it means ‘to Google’, a new verb for ‘to search’ that has blended in over barely a decade. Auletta’s book hints that this is a two-way street. In every sense, as enemies, allies, ordinary search users, even industries, Page and Brin’s company has ‘Googled’ us back. The full implications of this have yet to hit us.

Googled: the end of the world as we know it by Ken Auletta

Virgin Books (first UK imprint), 2010, ISBN 9780753522424, 384pp,