Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Book Review: Googled by Ken Auletta

Ken Auletta's book is outstanding; I read it in a single day. Three interesting threads run through it: (1) the sheer audacity of Google’s founders and their determination to do things differently; (2) the engineering philosophy at Google, with its emphasis on data, pragmatism, and empirical methods; (3) the woes of Old Media and other naysayers who regard Google with fear and loathing.

We have all read versions of the Google story. But Auletta brings out how incredibly focused Larry Page and Sergey Brin were in their early days, and how they deftly avoided most of the pitfalls that other dot coms succumbed to. They built a brand around their world-class technology, but also around putting users first. Everyone talks the customer-centric talk, but Google went ahead and walked the walk. They worried about ease of use and quality of results first, monetization second, and marketing not at all. Yes, they got lucky with ads, but you could argue that they made their own luck.

Their engineering culture led them straight to an emphasis on data mining as a source of inspiration, rather than surveys, focus groups and other, more traditional, methods. Everything at Google has to be done to scale. Why sample a percentage of your users when you can monitor all of them? In a very even-handed treatment, Auletta examines how this same culture sometimes leads the company to tread on people’s toes by lacking a human touch and discounting things like privacy concerns. He also notes that none of Page, Brin or Schmidt is a charismatic or inspirational leader in the conventional sense, yet this doesn’t seem to have held them back at all.

The chapters “Is Old Media Drowning?” and “Compete or Collaborate?” do a great job of outlining the dilemmas faced by the recording, radio, television, book and newspaper industries in dealing with the Google (+ Apple + Amazon) threat. Auletta points out that the music companies were not “murdered by technological forces beyond their control” but rather “they committed suicide by neglect.” The same could be said for many other industries now on the ropes. The near universal distrust of Google in these quarters is in stark contrast to the trust invested in Google by the vast majority of their daily users.

If you only read one book on the information industry over the holiday, I would recommend this one. It is based on sound reporting, original interviews, and painstaking research. It is also entertaining without being shallow. The last quarter of the book is devoted to sources and other supporting references.

Finally, Ken Auletta is giving a keynote at the Software Information Industry Association’s Information Industry Summit in New York on January 26. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say I’m on the steering committee for that conference. We were delighted to get him, and he gives a good talk by all accounts.