If you live in Silicon Valley and you’re creative, you can already find a copy of The Search, John Battelle’s chronicle of Google and the search industry. So far, I’ve uncovered one major problem: I couldn’t put it down. I remember going on a weekly walk with some other Googlers several years back and wondering why there were no books about Google. Ebay? The Perfect Store. Yahoo? Inside Yahoo: Reinvention and the Road Ahead. Amazon? 21 Dog Years : Doing Time @ Amazon.com and more recently, amazonia. Microsoft? I’ve got a whole shelf full of books about Microsoft. Google? Back then, nada. Zip. Zilch. Why, I wondered with my walking companions, hadn’t anyone written a book about us? Didn’t they know we’ve got good stories?
Now the situation is much better, from Tara and Rael’s Google Hacks to Chris Sherman’s excellent Google Power, which deserves a review in its own right. But The Search comes as close as anyone outside Google has come to getting into the Google story. Could I pick a few nits? Sure. Battelle mentions that Yahoo switched from Inktomi to Google in June 2000, but that’s when the deal was announced–the actual switchover happened over the long holiday weekend for July 4th. And would I describe a few parts of the story differently? Absolutely. But overall, it’s a fascinating snapshot of the search industry and Google in particular. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll learn a few things you didn’t know. For example, if you want to find out the real story of where “Don’t be evil” came from, you’ll find it on page 138.
Some parts that I particularly enjoyed:
- The book has a great layman’s guide to how a search engine crawls, indexes, and serves up the web. You’ll also hear about several interesting issues in passing, such as why the search [York] probably shouldn’t return results dominated by New York. You’ll find the definition of a SERP (search engine results page). If you’re an SEO and none of your family knows what you do, this book would make a nice gift.
- The pre-Google history gives wonderful background. If you’re an SEO geek, you still might not know about TREC or the story of AltaVista at DEC. It’s great stuff. I really enjoyed reading the section about GoTo/Overture.
- There’s several fun factoids: Andrei Broder reported that in 2001, 12% of queries to AltaVista were sexual. The book also quotes IBM’s WebFountain team as saying that 30 percent of the web is porn.
There’s also some things to file away and mull over. Battelle has a really interesting take on Yahoo and Google and their different approaches. It’s quite nuanced and you’ll want to read the book to get it all, but this quote was especially interesting:
Yahoo is far more willing to have overt editorial and commercial agendas, and to let humans intervene in search results so as to create media that supports those agendas…. Google sees the problem as one that can be solved mainly through technology–clever algorithms and sheer computational horsepower will prevail. Humans enter the search picture only when algorithms fail–and then only grudgingly.
A couple years ago I might have agreed with that, but now I think Google is more open to approaches that are scalable and robust if they make our results more relevant. Maybe I’ll talk about that in a future post.
Reading The Search gives you a jumpstart on understanding the search industry. If you’re an SEO, you need to pick up a copy of this book. At the same time, there are so many interesting stories left to be told about search. I wanted to hear stories about Inktomi and how Inktomi employees would eat the Habanero Hamburger (yes, I have had one). Or about Yahoo’s H=1 parameter. Or about www2.google.com and www3.google.com. But a book can only tackle so much, and The Search is a great summary of search so far. Highly recommended.