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’.

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