November 29, 2005

This Google Story is fun but far from definitive

It’s everywhere. It’s a research tool, it’s a shopping service, it’s a library, it’s the best way to check the cred of the hottie who just asked you out. It’s even a verb. How did we live life before Google? How is it possible that it’s only been around for seven years?

More importantly, who are these guys who are getting us all this info, and what’s in it for them?

In The Google Story, David A. Vise and Mark Malseed attempt to answer at the least the last question. Using their apparently unprecedented access to the company, they trace the lives of Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page and provide an in-depth examination of how one internet startup among thousands grew to be as big a part of online life as e-mail.

It’s not an easy task, given that the pair relies on sources almost entirely composed of current or former Google employees and their friends and family. They face the challenge of telling a business strategy success story without making their work totally inaccessible to a mass audience, and the similarly formidable undertaking of doing so without coming off as sycophantic. They do well to address one of these issues but fail at dealing with the other.

The authors do a commendable job in making this book readable for the layman. Even at moments when it seems appropriate to describe events in stultifying business-school case-study style, Vise and Malseed don’t give in. They keep both Wall Street and Silicon Valley jargon to a minimum and make an effort not to get bogged down in insignificant details of process. The pair establish why the sheer amount of computing power at Google’s disposal is important and how the search engine’s PageRank system works without rewriting the lines of code.

The book’s overall flow works to its advantage. Author and editor alike keep the pace quick in some of the book’s more chronological chapters, creating an atmosphere similar to the company’s lightning-speed technological world. At the same time, they avoid the trap of a purely linear storyline, inserting anecdotal rest stops to break up their travelogue of Google’s journey.

If you want to know how the company’s management structure works and the methods Page and Brin’s investors used to force that arrangement into existence, you’ll find out. Those less business-oriented, however, are treated to the reminiscences of Google’s former corporate cook on life in an internet startup company’s kitchen and the tale of how the famous Google home page doodles came to be.

Unfortunately, readers have quite a chore to complete before they can access that information. Through the first third of the book, Vise and Malseed are lost in Page and Brin’s early years. Working mainly off of interviews with the friends and relatives of the “Google Guys,” the esteem in which the authors hold the billionaire pair shines through a little too clearly. The tone becomes almost worshipful at points. While they eventually shift to hardball analysis of the organization’s function, there’s too much eye-rolling on the way there. The reader will make the rest of the way with a jaundiced eye, given the clearly established bias of the writers.

It may be for the best that Vise and Malseed show this early, given their forgiving treatment of some of the more controversial Google practices. But the work’s first 75 pages, more like a press release than anything else, call the entire project’s value into question. The note on the back flap of the jacket, claiming the book was “not created, authorized, or endorsed by Google, Inc.,” was imminently necessary.

The book also does not delve far enough into the more interesting aspects of the Google story. While there are pages and pages recounting how Google’s employee-friendly and innovation-centric office culture has contributed to the company’s success, a critical part of that culture, the founders’ “Don’t Be Evil” philosophy, is dealt with in an extremely haphazard manner.

The authors touch on it briefly at various points, and devote a breezy four-page chapter relating the Google watchword (“Don’t Be Evil”) to its nuanced policy toward pornographic online images. There is no full-length cohesive and coherent analysis of what that watchword means, how it affects the way Google does business, and how successfully they have balanced their philosophy with the profit pressures in an amoral business world.

Make no mistake, The Google Story is worth reading. Considering Google’s powerful influence on how the world gets its information today, internet users have an alarming lack of understanding of what makes Google, Inc. tick. The authors do make an effort to draw out exactly how Google posts profits, and why others both in and out of the technology industry have a problem with their methods. In addition, while they are uncomfortably flippant towards some consumer concerns about Google, Vise and Malseed do provide a relatively full picture about what those concerns are.

Readers will come away with a solid understanding of the intellectual property concerns that Google Print and the Google sidebar ads pose, as well as why some people claim Google is reading our Gmail (as it turns out, it’s because Google is reading our Gmail). However, this book is not and should not be the final world on Google in print media. Enjoy The Google Story for what it’s worth, but if you go more than one chapter in, you’ll understand why the book should be taken with a grain of salt.