Review: In The Plex, by Steven Levy

Steven Levy just wrote a new book about Google called In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. It succeeds the most on the “how Google thinks” part–if you want to understand how Google thinks, get an overview of Google, or understand its impact on the world, this is the book for you.

I think anyone interested in Google would enjoy this book. People who don’t know much about Google will get a good overview. People who are really interested in Google or the search industry will get a better understanding of how Google thinks. And even if you’re an expert, you’ll probably learn a few new tidbits. For example, Levy reveals the identity of GoogleGuy, the Google representative who answered questions from webmasters as early as 2001. You’ll also hear about inside-Google allusions like Audrey Fino or Emerald Sea.

Given that Levy isn’t a computer scientist or a Googler, I wasn’t sure how deftly he would internalize or explain how Google looks at the world, but for the most part he nails it. The book, like many accounts of Google, emphasizes the company’s focus on making decisions based on data and logic. At some points I felt that Levy pushed this point too hard. On the other hand, I recently had a conversation with a Google colleague about Lady Gaga, and the word “scalability” cropped up a lot more than you would expect for a conversation about a pop star. :) I don’t think Google is full of purely left-brained eggheads, but I’m willing to concede that compared to the average population, we probably skew further in that direction than most places.

Reading the book, I realized how much you could write about the different facets of Google. Even in 400+ pages, some topics get short shrift; it felt like Levy covered Google News in a single, condensed paragraph. But Levy gives complete and clear explanations for the parts of Google that receive his focus.

Here’s a simple litmus test: if you’ve read more than 2-3 of my blog posts in the past or follow me on Twitter, you’ll probably enjoy reading In The Plex.

Google search quality is hiring

I wanted to mention that Google’s search quality team is hiring. We work on everything from synonyms and spell correction to core ranking, UI changes, evaluation, and yes–even webspam. The sorts of people that do really well in Google tend to be smart, personable, can work well in teams or independently, get things done, and take initiative. It helps to have a healthy balance of theory as well as the pragmatic ability to build/launch real systems.

If you’re a smart engineer who wants to work on interesting problems across the scale of the entire web, why not reach out? drop us an email? Contact joinsearch at google.com to reach the recruiters in search quality directly. The best way to apply is to through our search engineering page. If you’re a great engineer who would like to work at Google in search, I hope you’ll apply! (The majority of people in the search quality group are based in Mountain View, California, by the way.)

Overdoing url removals

If you have a lot of urls that you don’t want in Google anymore, you can make the pages return a 404 and wait for Googlebot to recrawl/reindex the pages. This is often the best way. You can also block out an entire directory or a whole site in robots.txt and then use our url removal tool to remove the entire directory from Google’s search results.

What I would not recommend is sending tons (as in, thousands or even tens of thousands) of individual url removal requests to the url removal tool. And I would definitely not recommend making lots (as in, dozens or even more) of Webmaster Central accounts just to remove your own urls. If we see that happening to a point that we consider excessive or abusive, we reserve the right to look at those requests and responding by e.g. broadening, cancelling, or narrowing the requests.

So if you’re sending huge numbers of requests to our url removal tool, it might be a good idea to take a step back and ask whether you should be removing at the directory level instead.

30 day challenge: being thankful and going offline

It’s been a while since I reported on any 30 day challenges, so it’s time for an update.

30 days of Being Thankful

I knew that January, February, and March would be crazy, including a bunch of stuff at work, traveling, plus several conferences. So I told myself it was okay to do only one 30 day challenge, and it was a pretty easy one. I decided to be thankful for one thing each day. I kept a list, so here are 30 things I’ve been thankful for recently:

- thankful for my wife, plus the fact that she’s a good cook.
- thankful for my family. No one’s crazy and we all love each other.
- thankful that I can afford to take time off with my wife this week for our 11 year anniversary
- thankful that my wife is funny and we laugh together
- thankful that an Android phone can be a powerful personal computer, and that Google Docs lets you edit a doc from Android.
- thankful for This Week in Google (TWiG) because they provide free techie podcasts that I listen to while I work out
- thankful for my cats, but especially for the furry orange one who likes to perch on me and sleep next to me.
- today I’m thankful for the other cat, the gray striped-y one who sometimes lounges on my legs and keeps me warm
- thankful for caffeine, which is helping me to work down my email backlog.
- thankful for my health. Glad to be over my whooping cough.
- thankful for an aisle seat on a plane, that the plane that landed on time, and fortuitously running into Googlers in the airport to share a cab with. But also thankful for beautiful snow in Washington D.C. that didn’t derail my travel plans.
- thankful for thoughtful discussions of how Google works and how to make it better
- thankful to be heading home from D.C.
- thankful for smart, effective, hard-working colleagues
- thankful for my bike
- thankful for exercise and my health. And for a long bath after an eight mile hike.
- thankful that my Aliph Jawbone Icon can be updated to A2DP, so I can listen to music on my Bluetooth earpiece with my Android phone
- thankful for sleep, but mainly because I haven’t gotten enough of it.
- thankful for the chance to vent with some smart people.
- thankful for good copy editing
- thankful for Data Liberation and my lockpick set.
- thankful for daffodils
- thankful for an empty locker room. It sounds silly, but it’s more fun to get dressed in an empty locker room than a crowded one.
- thankful that my best friend back in Kentucky keeps sending me cool stuff he’s writing for me to read
- thankful for Linux and Chrome: two great things that keep me productive and safe on the internet
- thankful to WIRED magazine for writing about topics I want to read about
- thankful for colleagues who come together to work on important things
- thankful to Kara Swisher for introducing me to Val Emmich’s song called “Get On With It,” which is great to work out to
- thankful for Daylight Savings Time so I can start biking into work again
- thankful to have had a fortunate life so far: I feel like I get to make a difference and be rewarded for it

I was looking back over the list and I realized that some of the things I’m thankful for are high-tech, but most aren’t. Which leads me to my next 30 day challenge…

30 days with no electricity

Okay, the stuff below was an April Fool’s joke. I’m still on the electricity!

I think sometimes we get caught up in the excitement of technology and the online world. We forget that there’s an entire world offline–a world of books, and visiting with people, and being active instead of sitting in a chair. So my next 30 day challenge, I’m going to turn off my internet connection and reconnect with the offline world. I’m turning off my cell phone and won’t answer any email. Instead, I’m going to visit with friends in person, catch up with family, and generally try to use as little technology as possible.

I’m even trying to minimize the electricity I’m using. For the next 30 days, I’m going to camp out in my backyard. This will be my home for the next 30 days:

30 day challenge: camp in the backyard!

I’ll still take showers indoors, since that doesn’t need electricity, but otherwise I’ll be getting up with the sun and going to bed when it gets dark. This will be a really difficult challenge, but I’m looking forward to it. I’m heading offline after I publish this blog post, but I’ll let you know what I learned in 30 days!

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