My Thoughts On "The Search"

Chris did the heavy lifting in reviewing John's Battelle's new book, "The Search," but I wanted to add my own comments as well. Overall, it's fantastic work and a must read for anyone interested in search.

The web-driven search industry is now about 10 years old and has been sorely lacking a good recounting of how it developed. John delivers us that history, and it's very welcome to have. One of the most pleasing things is that he's managed to avoid as much as possible making this entirely about Google. Google is a dominant force, but other players such as AltaVista and GoTo/Overture get well deserved time here.

I told John already I felt a bit sad that the rise and fall of the Open Directory and human directories in general really didn't get covered. They may be a footnote, but for a short period, it seemed like human power was going to be the way forward. Why that failed is an important lesson as we go into a second decade where many assume folksonomies will somehow take over.

Another quibble. In 1996, it's not correct to say as on Page 78 that it was "nobody's goal" to be indexed in search engines. Plenty of people wanted exactly this. If they weren't, I wouldn't be writing now. That's the year I started writing about search and SEO issues, and the positive reception from readers told me there was tons of interest in being well indexed.

Site owners simply didn't want to get stomped on by badly behaving spiders that threatened to stall their servers, as Google's predecessor BackRub was doing. That WAS a concern for some during that year and more in the preceding years. That leads me to the only really good prior history on web search we've had until now, "Bots: The Origin Of New Species" from Andrew Leonard from 1997. That's another must read. It's amazing we've gone this long without the rest of the chapters of search being written since Leonard's book, but again, so glad John's now done that now.

John also talks of Google getting complaints over how people were ranked because "this was the first time anyone had claimed to rank the inherent value of a web site." I have to disagree and feel this overcredits Google. Plenty of people were concerned about being listed well in Excite or Lycos or Infoseek or AltaVista or Yahoo -- and all of those services suggested they were trying to rank sites by their quality or relevancy. Some of them even did rudimentary link counting.

As I said, these are quibbles. I'm a tough audience to please, and if that's all I'm finding in a 300+ page book, it's an A+ effort :)

Some favorite parts. Overall, for anyone who has been involved in search over the years, I think the entire journey through of various search milestones will make you smile, laugh or go "oh, yeah" as you recall where you were when you heard bits of search news.

Out on page 185, there's a jaw-dropping part that Google may have rigged AdWords to show ads in a certain way to help its trademark infringement suit with American Blinds. He writes:

The American Blinds lawyer dropped his bomb: he had what he believed to be incontrovertible proof that Google had fiddled with its own search results this very day and only in this region so as to sway the court's opinion in this matter

Google denied the allegation, suggesting it might be a technical glitch that caused it.

John also talks of the US Patriot Act and how it requires search engines among others to cooperate with the US government to release information -- and how Google cofounder Sergey Brin hadn't read it. Wow. Well, wow to some, I'm sure, as I've seen in some reviews of the book. I can see not reading the legalese part, so perhaps Brin hadn't read it but knew what was in it. But still wow again, when you come to the part that the act prevents apparently even disclosing to anyone that you've handed over information!

Be sure to check out the footnotes, where it turns out Google cofounder Larry Page originally, in discussions over a final interview, wanted the right to review any mention of Google, himself or Sergey Brin in the book and respond in footnotes. John spent weeks in negotiations before Larry backed down and even apologized, though he felt journalism in general was "extremely flawed" and wanted a way to "make it better." Can you imagine all those who feel Google's search results may be flawed and would like the ability to "footnote" their own listings. That idea wouldn't fly far.

Aaron Wall over at SEO Book notes today that there's not a lot of focus on SEO in the book, and that's true. The history of search marketing and the search marketing industry essentially revolves around the Florida update of 2003 (named not as the book says for the hurricanes to hit Florida that year but for the WebmasterWorld conference planned to hit the state a few months later) and how many webmasters woke up to the fact they couldn't expect a free ride on Google.

Such shake-ups had happened before to webmasters on Google and on other search engines even before that. I can remember getting a call at home on the weekend after an Excite shake-up knocked a guy out in 1999 or 2000. I'm in the UK; he was in the US and tracked me down, having a crisis because his business was so dependant on free traffic from Excite (yes, Excite!) that he was going to go under. But Florida was certainly a watershed for a generation of SEOs/SEMs that had effectively only known Google.

There's some discussion of the give-and-take/arms race/whatever between site owners and search engines, in particular Google. But for the most part, that's a side issue in the telling. Don't expect the book to be a history of SEO and search marketing. This is really a book focusing on the business of search engines themselves.

Need some more summaries? USA Today has a good review here, the Associated Press over here and Google's Matt Cutts writes over here highlighting parts he liked from his perspective.

Like I said, it's a must read, a fantastic effort, and I'm glad he fought through all the interviews not to mention the constantly changing industry to do it. Rest up, John, then get to work on The Search: Part 2, because there's going to be more history that needs a tellin'.