Search Inside the Book
A noted author writes about Google and the rise of the “search economy.”
John Battelle’s The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture is a book that, when the contract for it was announced in 2002, was probably the most anticipated book with the most interesting subject and the hottest author in tech-business journalism.
Still, books take a long time to write. Battelle – who founded the Industry Standard, a now defunct newsweekly that aspired to be the Economist of the dot-com boom but plummeted into bankruptcy in 2001 – knew he had to maintain his status as pundit. So in fall 2003, he began blogging about writing The Search.
Battelle intended his Searchblog (battellemedia.com) to be not only a promotional device but also a vindication of his theories. Blogging would become part of the process of writing The Search, as readers responded to his postings with arguments and new ideas that would enrich the final book.
When I talked to him, Battelle said blogging about the book while writing it embodied one of its important themes: the shifting of power away from the old order – in this case, old media – as search and new Internet services allow information to be shared. “I like to call this the Force of the Many,” Battelle says.
Battelle explains this force by retelling the history of Google. His main theme is how search will become the means by which people access every service or application that might run on a computing platform, as well as every possible species of data.
“Search already is the spade by which we turn the soil of human knowledge,” Battelle told me. “It’s not ‘the Web OS,’ but it is our mainstream navigation interface.” Battelle develops this line of reasoning in a fairly original way, and it has been his blog’s consistent theme. (It has, of course, been much discussed elsewhere: see, for instance, Charles Ferguson’s January Technology Review cover story, “What’s Next for Google?”)
But the heart of Battelle’s story is the rise of the “search economy,” which exists (he says) because search has allowed the commercial exploitation of “long tails.” This idea is less original. The commercial implications of the Long Tail – in the context of e-commerce, it’s become a proper noun – were made famous by Wired’s editor in chief Chris Anderson in an October 2004 article he wrote for his own magazine. Anderson is himself writing a book, The Long Tail, to be published next year. But any proprietary feelings he might have about long tails would be misplaced: like Battelle, he has been blogging his book into existence at www.thelongtail.com, and the term is now common currency.
Long tails are not original to Anderson either. The concept of the long tail will be familiar to anyone who has taken a statistics class. There are many common statistical distributions whose graphs show a small number of events occurring very often and a vast number of events (the long tail) occurring rarely. In aggregate, however, the rare events can outnumber the common events.
Battelle is interested in the application of search to untapped markets. In the context of e-commerce, long tails have three implications. First, via the Internet, products with little demand can, collectively, create a market exceeding that of the few bestsellers. Second, in the same way that it enables a proliferation of markets, the Internet enables a proliferation of vendors. Finally, thanks to search, a shift from mass to niche markets is likely.
Given the familiarity of Battelle’s themes, his book’s most interesting aspect may be how it was composed. How did Battelle weigh the potential benefits of blogging (dissemination, refinement, and expansion of the book’s ideas) against the inherent disadvantages (loss of “freshness,” potential for others to steal ideas)? Battelle responded, “The pros win. Folks will buy the book, I think, because people they trust recommend it. Those folks are my readers on the blog, I hope.”
Despite their familiarity, the ideas in The Search are important and real. Battelle is a clear and forceful writer. The blog-powered process that he (and Anderson) are using may be an effective way to refine ideas and ensure their survival. But to judge by Battelle’s book, successfully blogging a book has this unintended consequence: by the time the book is published, your most receptive audience may find your ideas a little stale.
A Tale of Two Blogs
The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture
By John Battelle
Portfolio, 2005, $25.95
The Long Tail: A Public Diary on the Way to a Book
By Chris Anderson
Mark Williams is a contributing writer at Technology Review.