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Search as the New Great Game

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In years past, major powers struggled to win the hearts and minds of people by maneuvering in what Kipling called "the great game." The new great game is playing out not as geopolitical intrigue, but in a egalitarian dance that transcends borders and is reshaping social reality, says John Battelle in his new book The Search.

The Search: How Google Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed our Culture is an ambitious work that's unlike any book I've yet encountered. Although the subtitle includes the requisite mention of Google, the book is really a much broader look at both the history of the web search industry and the profound effects and changes it is having on our social lives.

Battelle brings a unique perspective to The Search. Though a relative newcomer as an observer of the search industry, Battelle nonetheless has a deep and extensive technology background, first as a tech reporter and then as a founder of Wired and the Industry Standard magazines. In short, he has the chops to write a compelling story about both the technology and business aspects of the search industry.

The Search offers one of the most complete histories of the search industry I've seen. And while many of the accounts of the past are familiar, Battelle fleshes them out with additional detail gained from interviewing many people who played both major and minor parts in the search industry over the past decade or so.

Battelle also has a penchant for penetrating the myths and legends that frequently surface as familiar anecdotes, prodding for details never found in press releases and rarely revealed by key players who know the true story.

For example, in the mid-1990s AltaVista presented itself as a bold technology showcase to help market a new computer manufactured by parent company Digital Equipment. The search engine, we were told, was a lightning-fast application that could make sense of the massive, chaotic unstructured database called the world wide web, decisively demonstrating the prowess of the new DEC computers.

While this account has elements of truth (AltaVista was arguably the best search engine of its day), in reality the search engine was a bootstrapped project run by a very small team operating on a shoestring. Louis Monier, lead developer of the search engine, pulled no punches in relating his version of AltaVista's history to Battelle: "The executive team was stunned," Monier recalls. "They still didn't understand the opportunity, but they loved the publicity."

Battelle goes on to recount a series of fumbles that relegated AltaVista to also-ran status when it could have easily blocked moves by upstart Google to maintain its dominant position. Battelle doesn't just rely on Monier's account of the past. He adds nuance and perspective by talking with other members of the AltaVista team, who share some of Monier's views but also offer their own sometimes contradictory accounts of the past.

This approach to ferreting out multiple narratives offering varied perspectives adds richness and real human interest to a story that could easily be a dry corporate history. And Battelle's skillful sussing out of idiosyncratic detail works particularly well when it comes to the book's central cast of characters: The founders and leaders of Google.

By now, most of us have read countless stories of how Larry met Sergey, how they famously disliked each other, how they were reluctant entrepreneurs, and how they nonetheless persevered and in just a few short years assembled today's vast Google empire.

Battelle echoes and amplifies all of these stories, but always manages to get key players to say things they haven't said before (and in some cases likely regret). Battelle prods and pokes for detail, for perspective, for insights that others haven't discovered. He turns over unturned stones and makes connections that are occasionally surprising—even for a reader who's been an active observer of the industry since it first began.

The history of Google in The Search is the most complete I've yet seen, and worth the price of the book alone for interested Google-watchers. It will be very interesting to compare Battelle's version with the account compiled by Washington Post reporter David Vise in his upcoming book The Google Story.

The Search is more than just a fascinating history of the industry and its colorful characters, however. Battelle also has a keen interest in search as a business, and in tandem with the history of the industry he shows how search evolved from a technology with no business model into a powerful economic juggernaut—and one that appears to be just getting started.

Again, Battelle handles his musings on the business aspects of search with a deft touch, avoiding the trivial cliches and superficial analysis common to most business trade books. Battelle knows that search succeeds as a business not simply because it connects advertisers and merchants more directly and efficiently to consumers and buyers. It does; but contemporary search succeeds because it has emerged as what Battelle calls the "database of intentions," an all pervasive system that not only helps us satisfy our needs and wants as individuals, but changes the way we interact with others.

Battelle is engaging and amusing in his frequent ruminations about the social implications of search. He raises important questions and issues that we should all be thinking about, whether we are involved with search professionally or are just casual users of search engines.

The Search is an excellent book, with something for everyone. Apart from a comprehensive history of the industry, the sections dedicated to the business aspects of search are instructive for anyone wondering exactly how search engines make money. Indeed, as Google engineer Matt Cutts wrote recently in his blog: "So far, I've uncovered one major problem: I couldn't put it down."

The Search: How Google Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed our Culture
by John Battelle
Portfolio, $25.95
ISBN: 1591840880

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