In search of Google

How two guys in a garage created the Internet's indispensable tool

Review Memoir


The Google Story

David A. Vise and Mark Malseed

Random House / 336 pages

If you needed any further demonstration of Google's contribution to the economy, go to Google Book Search on the Internet, type "Google," and see 34,000 published pages that mention the search-engine company and scores of books that are devoted solely to it.

Most of these books are user manuals for the product that has become to 21st-century marketing what magazines and newspapers were in the 1800s and radio and TV were in the 1900s. Pay-Per-Click Search Engine Marketing Handbook by Boris and Eugene Mordkovich will get you started.

Rather fewer volumes tell the Google story of how a couple of Stanford grad students turned a research project into a company worth $125 billion on the stock market, much of it owned by themselves. But if it's plot you want, not page rank statistics, The Google Story, written by a Washington Post reporter and a Post contributor, is the best offering so far.

It's a familiar tale that somehow hasn't gone stale in numerous retellings. Brash, young Silicon Valley math whizzes rent garage (yes, there is a garage, the tech industry's version of the log cabin), work day and night, have fun, outsmart the establishment, get unimaginably rich and go a long way toward keeping the U.S. economy the world's strongest.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin got interested in search engines in the late 1990s after many such products were already on the Web, and the tech industry's "first mover" principle dictated that early entrants would reap the dividends.

In this case, the principle was wrong. By ranking the millions of Web pages according to how they were linked to other, important pages, Page and Brin found how to deliver nearly clairvoyant search results. They even hit on a way to brag about Google's precision with the "I'm feeling lucky" search field that more often than not went straight to the site you wanted.

Veteran Google watchers will read much that is familiar, but it is satisfyingly in context as the book builds to Google's enormous and unorthodox public stock offering in 2004. And there are numerous tidbits that are less commonly known. For example, rival search engine AltaVista had the chance to buy Google for $1 million in 1998.

The story is told straightforwardly, without long excursions into the remarkable Google software, the sociological implications of a seemingly magic online research system, or other aspects that will undoubtedly be plumbed in later chronicles.

Or will they? Will Google dominate the Internet long enough to inspire newer volumes? Will it be a Microsoft, an apparently permanent, dominant part of the economy? Or will Google bow in a few years to another set of smart-alecks cooking up big plans in a California garage?

The former seems likely. Google even runs ad searches for other companies' Web sites these days, not just its own. Perhaps even more than Microsoft, Google has threaded its tendrils widely and deeply across the economic landscape.

And it has done so in an even nimbler, more "virtual" way. Microsoft at least has to advertise, print software on compact discs and ship them to customers on trucks.

Google has made the biggest ad buy of all time - the entire Internet, and for years on end. But it came for free. Google has a better distribution system for its product than Federal Express, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service combined. Again, it is the Web. And again, the price is right.

Google has achieved the self-reinforcing, hard-to-dislodge "network" effect that the Internet bestows on the right companies. Buyers, sellers and searchers flock to it because it is biggest and best. And it is biggest and best because of the flocking. A worthy subject for a book.

Jay Hancock is a financial columnist for The Sun.

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