Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Review of The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture

John Battelle's The Search

My review of The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture by John Battelle. (NY: Portfolio, 2005).
Published in Midwest Book Review, Reviewer’s Choice, 8(5), May 2008.

In the introduction of John Battelle’s The Search: How Google Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, the author discloses that he did not want to write a business biography of Google, although the company is discussed throughout the book. Although the subtitle mentions Google, the book is a broader look at both the history of the search engine industry and the effects it has on our culture. Battelle wanted to follow the story of how searching has evolved from graduate student information science projects to the world’s growing dependence on online information. He also discusses some of the battles between Google, Yahoo!, MSN and second-tier search engines.

It all began in the mid-1990s, when AltaVista showcased a new computer created by its parent company. The search engine they created worked quickly on the powerful computers. AltaVista did not realize that it had created something more valuable than the computers themselves—the power to search the web.

Search, in Battelle’s book, goes beyond businesses like AltaVista or Google. As more users manage their lives through the Internet, companies that analyze our queries and deliver what we are looking for will flourish. Battelle calls it the “Database of Intentions,” which transitions the Internet from presenting content to interpreting intention. The Database of Intentions is a system that not only helps us satisfy our individual needs and wants, but changes the way we interact with others. As more users participate, search engines will better anticipate what will be asked for in the future.

The value of contextual advertising depends on interpreting intention. Since text ads are targeted for their audience, the ad buyer only pays when the ad is clicked. This has revolutionized advertising because small businesses which could not afford to advertise can now do so, and they only have to pay when it works. As one ad executive said, only a half of advertising works, but you don’t know what half. Text ads work for everyone involved: businesses get sales boosts without a large marketing budget, customers get what they want (or did not even realize that they want) and search engines make money by connecting the two. Of course, it is not as easy as it seems, and Battelle offers examples of how companies have benefited and been damaged by search engine algorithm readjustments.

Battelle also discusses the downside of search engines, such as the various black hat schemes to rank pages higher or to commit clickfraud, among others. Google, whose motto is “Don’t Be Evil,” has been criticized for some of their business decisions. As search engine companies move into markets in countries like China, they will have to deal with oppressive government regimes that censor material, at best, and kill online dissidents, at worse. Google has issued a limp statement in defense of supporting China’s censorship laws, and Yahoo! was recently exposed as helping China prosecute dissonant journalists that use its search engine. This topic will be discussed at great length in the coming years as companies try to profit in large, censored markets by compromising their ideals.

Although Google leads the market, other companies are gaining ground, like Yahoo! and Ask. In order to stay in the market, all companies will continue to analyze and market the Database of Intentions in quicker, faster, and simpler ways.

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