Two New Books Examine The New Informational Overlords, Google
If you’re anything like me, you spend way too much time in front of a computer. And perhaps over the last few years, you have increasingly relied on the Google search site. At first, you called on Google to answer basic questions—but perhaps over time the relationship turned increasingly codependent, with Google executing more and more of your perfidies, providing the history of a potential snuggle mate, say, or spell checking a pathetic attempt at some obscure word, one that stumped even Microsoft Office. The Google page—so fresh, so simple, so fast!—returns unimagined riches with a consistency of a new friend a little too eager to please.
And the deeper you look into Google, the stranger it becomes. Why have investors given the company more than $3 billion—to start a global edition of the Pennysaver? Why does the world’s largest software maker, Microsoft, obsess over competing with Google? And why is the Authors Guild—the professional organization for writers worldwide—up in arms about a technology company?
Actually, Google Inc. has made its goal quite clear, at least if you read its latest 10-K annual report, an accounting every American public company must submit to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. “Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” it states.
Still, how many people realize the full implications embedded there? Note the 10-K didn’t read “all the information on the web,” or “all the information about products that can be purchased.” It meant the sum total of human knowledge, from the wholesale price of tea in 1721 to whom you kissed last night (assuming you wrote about the smooch on a blog, e-mail, or instant message). Google wants its site to become the universal sippy cup of truth.
The search service is the brainchild of two Stanford University Ph.D. students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page. The two met at the school in the spring of 1995, recounts Washington Post reporter David Vise and Mark Malseed in The Google Story. Page, the Silent Bob of the duo, grew up in East Lansing, Mich., the son of two university instructors. Brin was born in the Soviet Union, though his family moved to Prince George’s County when he was 6.
The two didn’t set out to become Informational Overlords—they were merely looking for a Ph.D. thesis topic. You have to remember, web searches sucked back in 1995-’96. Indexing the web was done in one of two ways—manually or automatically. Yahoo! undertook the Sisyphean task of cataloging the entire web by hand, constructing an alphabetized directory that would never be complete because the web grew faster than Yahoo!’s ability to cover it all.
The other option was to send out little traveling programs—called spiders—that would send copies of every page back. AltaVista went this route, and while it amassed more pages, the operators couldn’t render coherent the resulting pile of data. If you searched for a simple term, such as “Box Elder,” AltaVista would simply return a list of all the pages containing those two words, oblivious that what you were really interested in was the Pavement song by that name.
Page had the simple but powerful idea to rank web pages according to how relevant they were to a user’s search. Since both students grew up in academic homes, they understood the importance of citations, how a scientific paper cites other previously published papers. In academia, citations signify importance. Papers that garner the most subsequent citations are valued most highly. In a similar way, Page and Brin reasoned, the most valuable pages are those linked to by many other sites.
Even early users were amazed by how much better this approach, dubbed PageRank, worked. Yet when Brin and Page shopped their technology to other search companies, such as Excite and Yahoo!, the established search giants showed no interest. Their own searches were good enough, they felt. Besides, these companies wanted users to stay on their web sites for as long as possible.
What the executives of these destination sites didn’t get is that search isn’t just another feature, like having a box displaying the local weather forecast. No, searching is primal behavior. Sure, you bookmark some favorite sites, but if you have any curiosity, you seek new information but likely don’t know where to get it. So it’s a given that the best search service would amass the most users. Almost reluctantly, Brin and Page went into business for themselves in September 1998, drawing the cream of Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists. And within three years, Vise and Malseed report, Google executed 100 millions searches a day.
At first, Google execs didn’t know how to profit from the site’s popularity. They soon turned to advertising. Make no mistake, when you use Google, you are not the customer. Rather, you are the product. Google makes its money from businesses that pay to have their ads placed alongside your search results. Department store tycoon John Wanamaker once famously complained that half of all advertising budgets are wasted, only no one is sure which half. Google sought to overcome that problem by showing ads that aligned with the users’ searches, placing the most relevant matches at the top of the page.
“Google figured out how to make advertising on the Internet work effectively by targeting it to individuals at the moment they most need it: when searching for information,” Vise and Malseed write. How can NBC or The New York Times compete with that?
Maybe not so well. Last month, Vise reported in the Post that Google had taken in $1.6 billion over three months last summer, $381.2 million of which was pure profit. Google executives were quoted as saying this money in years past would have been earmarked for advertising in newspapers, magazines, and television.
These days, Google’s hunger for knowledge is stretching beyond the web. Like a giant, insatiable Pac-Man, Google gobbles up data wherever it can be found. The company started a free e-mail service. It is scanning in books at a prodigious rate: not only those in the public domain, but even those still in print (the Authors Guild is suing Google for copyright infringement, even though the company has pledged to put only small portions of the text online). Google has started a mapping service and a repository of satellite imagery of Earth. It offers instant messaging and even a free tool to index all the data on your computer.
While Vise and Malseed do a good job at covering Google as a business story, another new book, John Battelle’s The Search, looks beyond the fiscal success. Battelle understands that Google is building a “database of our intentions,” an analyzable record set from which we can infer humankind’s desires. He sets out to understand what it means to have an organizer of all knowledge.
There are some potential trouble spots—privacy, for instance. All this public data, although inherently innocuous, can be dangerous. Enter a phone number into the Google search bar and you get back not only a name and address of that number’s holder, but also a map pinpointing the address. Another click and you get a list of gun shops nearby.
More insidious, Google is showing nascent signs of bending its projection of reality to its own will. Last year, when a company called American Blinds sued Google in California for trademark infringement, the American Blinds attorney claimed that Google changed its search results in the geographical region where the case was being heard, in order to “sway the court’s opinion on the case,” Battelle writes. Google denied it—but what is to stop it from doing this sort of thing in the future?
Then there is Google’s possibly deleterious effect on the media, worrisome if you work in the media, anyway. Battelle relates an interesting statistic: In the weeks following Sept. 11, 2001, news-related searches on Google (searches for terms such as “World Trade Center” and “Afghanistan”) jumped 60 percent. Online news outlets were heavily used before Sept. 11, of course, but were users turning to Google for information that traditional media couldn’t provide?
A short Flash internet movie created by Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson, called “EPIC 2014,” portrays a future in which Google kills traditional news outlets altogether. Brin, Page, and company combine and enhance all Google’s personalization and categorization tools. Assembling data bits from web pages, books, instant messages, blogs, and other sources, Google creates news stories—and even entire publications—customized for each individual user.
“EPIC 2014” is ominous and exciting at the same time, but it is also terribly sensational. For the five or so years I’ve used Google, I haven’t bought a single thing from its advertisers. As intuitive as its ideas seem, the company still must prove itself in the long run. Perhaps all this enthusiasm over Google signals a far more mundane and odious development than that of Total Knowledge Dominance—namely the return of the dot-com bubble. Heaven help us all.
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