Book Review: The Search

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 @ 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 and But a book can only tackle so much, and The Search is a great summary of search so far. Highly recommended.

18 Responses to Book Review: The Search (Leave a comment)

  1. Matt – just ordered a copy from Amazon. I got to sit at breakfast with Batelle at WMW conference. He’s a busy guy these days and I like his optimism about the future of Blogging though I’m skeptical it can be monetized to the degree he thinks it can.

  2. It would be pretty hard to write about google unless you were a insider of some sort. I look at the google main page, and can’t think of much to write about. 🙂

    Obviously google has done a tremendous amount of work and has grown a strong employee culture. Living 3500 miles, I am not privvy to these google tasty nuggets.

    As well, google has been a pretty private company. How is John Battelle able to gather this much info on google? I’ve seen him at WMW, but he’s obviously got more inside connections than that.

  3. Nice recommandation! I am trying to learn more about SEO and will definitely give this book a read. Thanks!

  4. Hi Matt.

    Three years ago, I decided not to depend on books to know the facts on the development of computers, the Internet and the World Wide Web.

    Therefore, I began my own research. I only used press releases, NYT, WSJ and other key sources.

    Three years later the research is almost complete at

    So, if want to know the true facts, see my research (it’s free!), then buy the books.

    Pura vida.


  5. I preordered the book a while ago, and finally got a happy email from Amazon, telling me that it’s on the way.
    Can’t wait to read the stuff !!!

  6. I thought it was a great book…the few downsides: I would have liked to have seen a few more SEO quotes, John quoted Brandt, and like you I sorta wanted the book to grow fatter as I read such that I could keep reading more and more.

    It was refreshing that The Search was not entirely pro Google and I think he even got to sneak a few curse words into the copy. great writer & sense of humor. also cool that he tries to illuminate where he thinks search is headed

  7. Thanks for the review, Matt.
    Based on yours and Chris Sherman’s recommendation over at Search Engine Watch, I’ll be picking up a copy in the next few days (assuming my local bookstore has gotten them in yet).

    Also, I recently filed a patent on a new form of disruptive PPC advertising I thought Google’d like to take a look at. Called Match Engine Marketing, it’s a way for advertisers to quickly and easily bid on actual sets of self-chosen demographic and psychographic information/criteria sets, instead of trying to figure out people’s intent by the words and phrases they perform searches on.

    I’m sure it’s something Larry, Sergey, and Eric would like to take a look at. The white paper at has the details.

    Keep up the good work!


  8. Matt,
    I also got lucky and got an early copy of The Search over the summer. Awesome read – the detail, personalities, fun stories, and the business angles are weaved into one great read. We are in the third inning of this game and John did a great job as the color commentator and play by play guy all rolled into one.

  9. Matt,
    We like the idea I have 2 points I would like to run past your eyes…

    1, Would it not be better to give an advanced warning, then check again, then ban if nothing has been done. Some people may innocently lose business becuase of this.

    2, It would be nice if we could have a TAG we can put in the pages with the email we would like used for communication. Or perhaps we can list domains we use in our google account and associate and email with each domain, if a site you are going to ban is listed in an account you would email the appropriate address? Can use the same verify system as the sitemaps and this would also mean spammers cant grab the emails but we will be able to set up dedicated addresses for collecting information about our sites from you?

    Get in touch via searchgrub if you wish to discuss these ideas further, however just thought I should run them in front of you 🙂


  10. I would read comments or book of webmaster who really own highranking website, like pr8 or so on. Only his words would sound real, I have seen seo experts whose websites not ranked well, and what can they offer for others.
    Matt, but you have well ranking website, and I think you can split some secrets with us 🙂

  11. Well, I trust Matt since he is our middleman between Google. Only he can give us the key and secrets to have access to the deep dark secrets of Google 😀

  12. Great recommendation Matt, I have read this one myself, very informative and lots of valuable information.

  13. Pretty much anything from the Bathroom Reader’s Institute. They publish the “Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader” series of books. Available at B&N and other fine book stores.

    BTW, totally off topic, but I heard a rumor that you cut the tops out of your shoes. Any truth to this?

  14. This is great book, good insight in the search engine as a whole (and its not all about the GOOGLE). The great book.

  15. I loved this book as well, this is unbelievable. Really good talk about Google and how to get categorized.

  16. The search is great book, recommened to anyone who’s interested in search engine marketing.

  17. I like the part about the human intervention at yahoo

    I would take a small army to filter the results just for the most popular searches and that is only with them filtering the results of the algorithm not adding anything you wold need a large armys for that

    I think I am going to have to get this book

  18. Having read Battelle’s book I can say this is the most comprehensive review of
    The Search I have read online. The Search is so full of subtle detail about the history of search and where it will lead, that I too was caught up in the revelations about the greatest invention since the television, telephone, or the radio. Intuitive search promises to change the world we live in and result in dramatic socioeconomic shifts in our behavior as consumers.
    If you really want to understand the concept behind search, from the layman’s point of view, read it on your iPad, Kindle, or even pick up a paper copy. You will be glad you did.
    Thanks for sharing.