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.

76 Responses to Review: In The Plex, by Steven Levy (Leave a comment)

  1. Thanks Matt… already planned on reading the book, but after reading this review, I know it won’t be time wasted listening on Audible.

  2. Tom Jepson

    Thanks for the review of the book Matt. Heard about it earlier on in the week and was debating whether to get a copy when it Comes out. Looks like I’ll have to now! ;)

  3. Seb

    What have you guys done? Panda has destroyed many quality websites. The most common factor I can see is anyone with adsense gets whacked.

  4. Adding it to my wishlist now… done! thanks for the recommendation, Matt. :)

  5. Harith

    Matt

    “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.”

    I have followed your and some other Googlers posts on blogs as well as tweets. And have reached to the conclusion that there is no “standard Googler” rather very individual Googlers. For example take a look at you, Adam Lasnik, Brian White, John Mu and Pedro Dias to see what I mean :-)

  6. Shakeel Mahate

    Matt, I would have preferred a Google Books link instead of the Amazon link. Thanks for the review, I have added it to my reading list.

  7. Matt,
    With a growing stack of books I was only mildly interested in purchasing In the Plex throughout your post. I hit the litmus test and ended up at Amazon with yet another cart to checkout. Another well written post… I look forward to the read.

  8. No need to ask whether the Amazon link is an affiliate link… :.)

  9. I will definitely buy it!

    But I have to wait for 1 month before it’s available in France…

  10. Yet another Kindle one-click purchase added to my queue.

  11. My personal thoughts…anyone that enjoys Levy’s contributions to WIRED will probably enjoy this book just the same. I just got started reading it, so I can’t give an in-depth review, but so far I’m impressed by Levy’s ability to weave a common thread between small, technical/geeky details and the “big picture,” ie Google’s place in business/commerce at large. Can’t wait to get through it.

  12. When you really think about it Google has significantly changed they way do everything online. In many cases it has created the way we do things online and if Google was to disappear I just don’t think there is anything that could ever fill the void.

  13. nicolai

    Aha so now we finally get confirmation of GoogleGuy. Reading the book and I’m liking it.

  14. I got my copy in the mail today…I’m only about 20 pages in, but it is REALLY interesting. Thanks for the recommendation!

  15. I very much enjoyed Stephen’s talk with Chris Sherman at SMX West and am looking forward to reading the book.

  16. PJ

    Google has both transformed the Internet and become a verb synonymous with ‘search.’ “In the Plex” is the product of author Steven Levy’s having spent five years attending internal Google meetings and meeting with hundreds of employees. The book’s content covers Google from its origination up through its latest management reshuffling attempt to reduce bureaucracy and speed decision-making. I was very impressed by the strategic muddling (eg. Google’s beginning without any sense of a business plan; Overture’s failure to patent its AdWord predecessor – allowing Google free access to the concepts), mistakes (eg. initially trying to sell the company for $1.6 million to Yahoo, DEC/AltaVista, and Excite so the founders could return to Stanford; going against China’s government; attempting to build an on-line searchable database of books – rejected on legal grounds; keeping the details of its data center secret), and masterful moves (eg. the thinking underlying Android, Adwords, and PageRank; the conduct of its IPO), its emphasis on recruiting extremely qualified staff, like Matt (often PhDs in new computer-science fields) and ability to use them well (eg. allowing 20% of work time to be spent on self-selected projects), the firm’s ability to both significantly lower costs while increasing speed, and its emphasis on data-driven decision-making – despite projects often initiated by a whim from either of its brainiac founders.

  17. I am enjoying Stephen’s talk with Chris Sherman at SMX West and i am looking forward to reading the book.

  18. Here we go again. Matt you are a great sells person. Now I have to buy In The Plex. Great Job!!! LOL! Is it OK to comment to this post again after I read it?

  19. Hi Matt,

    I enjoy your blog like always; I don’t think Stephen’s book will tell me how Google thinks, but yes I will read it. It’s like saying I know KFC recipe, I looking forward to reading the book.

  20. is it available in digital form online.

  21. Hi Matt,

    I am surely going to buy this book, i am a great fan of Google & Its innovation. Google always comes with such an idea which is innovative and thats make it GOOGLE :) . one thing which i like the most about Google is, you guys think of people before revenues.
    I love GOOGLE…

  22. Milocev

    Matt, thank you. I removed ALL my adsense ads for all my pages, just to be safe!! That’s an obvious MFA /spammy site signal and I’m sure the datacentric Google has plenty of data to back that up and add it to the algo. I wrote about it on my blog too and my friends are doing it too.

    How long will it take for any changes to take place? Great blog.

  23. Hmm, Wired Magazine editor. Does he mention anything about google gaining consciousness? It didn’t work out well in that skynet movie. Anything about when they will they correct the spelling to googol? ; )

    More seriously, I’m sure the entire south bay area skews a bit towards left brained analytical individuals. Considering the company is built around a search algorithm….I wouldn’t expect artists other than someone maybe like Benoit Mandelbrot who can visualize numbers as images. They do have fractal geometry art contests after all….

  24. How this book will know the future of Google because Google thinking change every era of time, than how could we know Google by this book

  25. Just bought In The Plex from Amazon. Thanks again for blogging great info. Will keep you guys posted.

  26. Matt, you are right, there was plenty of material that I simply couldn’t get in. Google News, which you mentioned, was the subject of multiple interviews. I could have gone on about Blogger, Reader, iGoogle, and many other products. And I even had tons on Knol! But ultimately a writer has to be ruthless and spare the reader an encyclopedia. So apologies to those in Google News and all the other subjects given short shrift. I can say that every single interview I conducted contributed to my overall understanding of Google, so not one was wasted.

  27. Hi Matt

    Thanks for the heads up. I was just looking on the book shelf the other night at Steven Levy’s 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution and thinking “umm maybe I’ll read that again”.

    Its a good read, but with your Stirling recommendation, this sounds even better.

    Cheers

  28. Thank you Matt,
    I would appreciate a link to other book web sites, like Barnes and Noble.
    (I had a bad experience buying from Amazon, and I do not shop there anymore.)

  29. Thanks for the book review. I never read books unless some has given a positive review. There is just too much to do and too little time to waste. Thanks again.

  30. Thanks Matt, I don’t usually read books on Geeky stuff. It is good to have an overview panorama of the philosophy behind the people as usually it will determine the future actions and direction of travel

  31. Already ordered. Having a look at the current serps it seems like Google is not thinking at all…

  32. Bitten

    Matt I have a question that only a Google PHD might answer. My site was on page one for a good 6 years and weathered all updates. 5% down one year, 15% up another but that’s about it. Now my site has been tagged as “low quality” and sent to page three and no less than 4 blogspot blogs outrank me. We are all biased but I can usually tell when a site should outrank me or not. I have checked and none of those sites was created the day before Panda and they were there for years.

    Was Google clueless for the past six years or is it now? There is nothing (that) wrong with my site. Of course it can be improved and this can go left a quarter of an inch more and so on, but I have plenty of good links, content, social buzz, and good press.

    So what do I do? I read the Google guidelines a few years ago and they still haven’t change. I don’t know anyone in the Plex or techie press to get special treatment. Even if I did, I’m sure I’m not the only one with this problem.

    How could Google be so wrong?
    How could you make such drastic wrong moves?
    How could play with people’s lives in such a way and not give a f*ck about them?
    Why are you hiding behind a few skirts at the PR department? Come to webmaster forums and defend your product Matt.
    How many Panda sites have come back after fixing their sites? Is it ZERO ? Why is that? How can you play with people’s lives that way Matt, with no warning too?

  33. Great tip Matt! I ordered it! BTW haven’t you ever written a book?

  34. Looking forward to get a copy.. thanks for the review. Would like to know about the google thinks and take decisions..

  35. Great roundup, thank you!

  36. One could liken the revealing of GoogleGuy to the unmasking of the Stig. But I hope you’re getting your “cutt” of the proceeds. *cough*

  37. Donovan

    Hi Matt,

    Hope you had a nice break. It’s good to see you back.

    I’m commenting here on the off chance that I might get an issue sorted. It would be a huge favour to me if you can take a moment to look into it, and I entirely understand if you can’t. I won’t ask again.

    I have a site that was demoted in the search results at the beginning of the year. It’s a site I’ve been working on for 6 years and I put a lot of resources into in the last year, and it was doing quite well. However, part of the promotion was to rent links through a link buying service. I’m pretty sure this is why it was demoted.

    I have removed any pay links, and had an SEO expert go over the site to ensure it’s squeaky clean. I’ve put in several requests through Google Webmasters for consideration, but the site’s still penalised (I can’t even pay for Google Ads any more).

    The site is shopireland.ie, and I’d be forever honoured if you were able to check to see if it’s being penalised for something I can fix. I’m not looking for any boost in ranking, just a fair chance to compete in my niche.

    Thank you for your time, and for the excellent blog.

    Donovan Hutchinson

  38. I also think Google have big impact with me, my business, my life, my entertainment, my communication, just when i open my computer, Google here, when i go to web, Google here, i can’t imagine what will happen if someday there are no Google.

  39. Thanks you recommendation.
    Does it a Chinese vision? Hehe, reading a whole English book is a challenge. And in fact, the cost on transportation is even higher than book price.

  40. Hi Matt. Thanks for the book review. I know how Google Switzerland works from the inside and I’ll plan to buy book. It will be interesting to read it in detail.

  41. Evan Thomas

    Hire anyone who can get rid of these content free url squatting pages like this freetreeremoval.net on the SERP for “free tree trimming ATT” . It showed up on the first page of results here in Sacramento, and it definetley doesn’t help my search to find out if the phone company will trim our tree for free (We’re getting a lot of crackling on the line.) BTW, why haven’t you moved on this already? Bing seems to have worked out a solution. At least throw out an extension. C’mon now.

  42. Sounds like an interesting read on the internal workings of all things Google. I’ll be adding it to my list of books to read next.

  43. Great way to know more about Google process how its work and more things. Thanks for this nice and knowledgeable book.

  44. I read this book it’s very interested and thanks for new think about Google.

  45. I was trying to find a good book for my vacation to Boston in a few weeks. Thanks for the review Matt, you helped me make my decision.

  46. Already ordered. Hopefully the language will be straight forward enough to understand it as a non-native speaker. Don’t want to read translated books since their translation is normally awful, especially when it comes to German translations. The only good German translator was Carl Weissner who did a great job on Charles Bukowksi’s books. Hell, I’m going offtopic lol

  47. Sounds like a new take on how Google works looking from the outside. Never the less it can only help, so I’ll put this on my “to read” list

  48. I am planning to order a copy from Amazon, still waiting for that salary to come. lol

  49. Vic

    Hi Matt,

    This is off topic but I hope you at least see it. How is it possible that a scraper site with ZERO original content outranks my PR5 site which is “clean” and is the originator of the content? Happens on EVERY single post. I own GameRant.com and the complete scraper site virtual.ca outranks me every time:

    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=%22New+Releases+April+24+Through+30%2C+2011%22&btnG=Search&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=

    This last update is NOT working as was intended, let me tell you.

    Thanks,

    Vic

  50. Jen

    Sounds like this is a must read item for anyone who relies on and wants to understand Google!

  51. Hey Matt,

    I thought you wanted people to use their names (I’m assuming nicknames provided by you are also acceptable). How did the web design and Internet marketing companies slip through the net like that?

  52. Thanks for the notice and am looking forward to reading this book. I always find it fascinating to better understand how significant business events have transpired. And no question Google has had a tremendous impact on current business and society.

  53. That’s funny in mentioning scalability in reference to Lady Gaga, that comment is making me think.

    And in response to the comment about left brained eggheads: I have heard Google’s general counsel speak at a conference and although he understood tech, he certainly wasn’t a “left brained egghead”. What really struck me was his perspective though. Even other very large companies had a much tighter focus, where the Google GC was looking at a very wide global perspective. Concerned about implications on a grand scale of things like copyright and intellectual property.

    Thanks for the post on the book, I’ll have to check it out.

  54. I heard Stephen’s talk with Chris Sherman at SMX West on your recommendation I’ve added the book to the cart.

  55. Identity of … GoogleGuy? !

  56. I hadn’t heard of Steven Levy before, but I’ll have to keep an eye out for the book. I think it is an advantage he isn’t a highly technical person as that probably gives him a better chance of explaining aspect of Google in terms most people can understand.

  57. This looks like a great read. Thank you for the heads up. I might want the audio version of it too, so I can work and listen at the same time.

  58. Added to my Amazon wishlist. It will be interesting to get a glimpse behind the curtain, bearing in mind your comments.
    Thanks for the tip.

  59. Thanks for the review of the book Matt. Sounds very interesting I have added to my list to read. I also would love to visit the GooglePlex.

    Thanks

  60. Guess I will have to get the book to see who the actual Google Guy really is.

  61. Looks like another great book to add to the pile to take on vacation this summer ( if it ever comes to the Pacific NW).

  62. Hmm… I always thought it was *you* who was behind the “GoogleGuy” persona. You don’t say that you aren’t in this post… guess I’ll have to read it if I want to find out. :)

  63. Wow, this is a book I must have, is it possible to get it as an online ebook? Cuz I live in Mexico, or can I get in Mexico, I am really interested in Google, the most I love about it, is the way they treat people and specifically employees, per Nat Geo perspective… I will look for the book, thanks.

  64. It’s great to hear you (as the voice & face of Google to me) give this book a ‘thumbs up’ (sorry, a ‘+1′). I’m usually skeptical of books like this where they seem to be cashing in on a behind the scenes look at a big brand. If you like it, that’s good enough for me so I’ll go and download the audio book now – should have it read by the end of the weekend!

  65. Do you think the movie attached to book is a scare tactic ? :)
    wohohoho what does google know about me hehe

  66. I am def going to give in the Plex a try, who know’s it may just solve some of my life long questions about Google.

  67. For readers who don’t want to get the whole book, this is a pretty extensive interview about it
    http://media24.podbean.com/pb/79a54a2b9f490e08d520ef6bbc2c7cd8/4ded1b84/blogs24/333838/uploads/SAIcast-052711.mp3

  68. Matt, thanks posting the video.

    I found the book vary interesting, now I know why it’s impossible for a normal person to get a job their, and I am defiantly going to start referring to Google as an AI company. My personal favorite products is Picasa, those I think Google s hatred of legacy file system really shows in the missing file management in Picasa. What is dose have is frankly scary…

  69. Sounds fascinating. If you give it the thumbs up I will definitely give it a whirl. Sounds like a good read.

  70. Just started reading In the Plex. And enjoying it. Although there are parts I glazed over because the same stuff was said in The Search by John Batelle. I think both books should be required reading for all aspiring internet marketing or search analytics specialists. There’s so much to be said for delving into the history and getting a deep insightful perspective from such good writers. Better to read these than to spend yet another hour reading posts on tactics.

  71. manoel

    hello matt, sorry but right now what I want to know is how to reach this:

    Database Caching 9/14 queries in 0.013 seconds using disk

    with w3tc
    its a super fast server or do you have some ninja wp optimization tips for the mortals?

  72. Wow. Thanks for this review.. that book has been recommended by a bunch of techies, and I definitely want to absorb some of that ‘genius’.. even if I’m not the typical Google fanboy type. Cool blog, too, BTW!

  73. One book that I have on my recommended reading list that I have discussed with friends who know I am a student of Google is the “Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything.” It would not surprise me if you had read this book written by Stephen Baker. Some of the challenges address by IBM in that project no doubt benefited from Google natural language processing and computational advances, some of which may be similar to the technology supporting the generally improved results delivered through Panda enhancements. Google is referenced extensively in that book though obviously not the central theme. I look forward to reading In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives as the premise is near and dear to me as I, as have millions of others, have come to rely on Google as the “Oracle of Delphi” to answer any and all questions that arise, when they arise. Its hard to imagine life without this access to specialized, detailed information in near real time. As a computer scientist by training, I appreciate the incredible task of spidering through billions of individual URLs to build and maintain an index that can support many hundreds of thousand concurrent queries for millions or even billions of possible search permutations and then return relevant results to each query in sub second response time. Thanks!

  74. Sounds like good entertainment in these rainy summer days.

    Thanks for sharing!

    /Mathias

  75. I just finished this one, wow, what a long, but thoroughly satisfying read. I think great book like this SHOULD, in a way, make you smarter, and I’ve taken ideas from here, and applied them to my own business.

    At the end of the day, I do believe Google is a great thing, even if I’m not an Engineer ;).

  76. Ok, but did he get access to Google to be able to show a real insight? Or was it done from a far? I believe that the only USP of this book would be the insight that he might have gained from exclusive, in depth, unlimited access to Google and the team.

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