The Story Behind Search

Steven Levy’s new book on Google sticks close to the legend, but offers some fascinating inside detail.

This is a tough time to write a book about Google. The first part of the story we pretty much know: Two Stanford brainiacs come up with an algorithm that reinvigorates Internet search. In the process they create unimaginable wealth for themselves and many others. For a time in the 1990s, it seemed like Google was destined to rule the Web forever.

Then we started hearing about a new kind of website that had little use for the algorithmic authority of Google, but instead emphasized chilling with your friends. While Facebook and other social media companies might be enjoying a  bubble right now, there’s still a reasonable chance that they could permanently shrink the economic value of Google-style search, and with it, of Google itself.

In his new book, In the Plex (Simon & Schuster), technology journalist Steven Levy (previously a correspondent for Newsweek and now one for Wired) deals with this crossroads in the only way possible for someone with a contract to deliver a big book about Google in early 2011.

The volume is, for the most part, a straightforward chronological history of Google, beginning with Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Stanford and ending with Eric Schmidt stepping aside as CEO in January and handing power back to the cofounders (Levy mostly avoids the often-whispered notion that Schmidt was never much more than a figurehead). Most of the book chronicles Google’s successes: How they came about, and the trouble they caused for the company as people gradually awoke to the economic force that the company had become. Google, for example, now undergoes intense privacy and antitrust screening in the U.S. and Europe in connection with virtually everything it does.

This is an old-fashioned book—which is meant as a high compliment in this era of facile punditry and 140-character attention spans. Lots of shoe leather was worn out during its reporting, and Levy’s writing is full of energy and drive.

As the titles of his earlier books—Insanely Great, about the Mac, or The Perfect Thing, about the iPod—make clear, Levy is enthusiastic about technology and tech companies. Anyone seeking a fundamental critique of Google’s cultural impact should instead read Nicholas Carr, author of articles such as “Is Google Making Us Stupid?

In the Plex tends to give Google the last word, but Levy also gives its critics a chance. An example is Google’s decision to scan all of the world’s books: the default position in the blogosphere is that objections from book publishers were the last gasp of a dying industry—akin to the Recording Industry Association of America’s initial opposition to the very idea of an MP3 player. Levy, though, gives ample room to those who argue, quite convincingly, that Google had arrogantly decided that its own ambitions were the best guide to the public’s interest, rather than mere trifles like copyright laws.

Even those who’ve criticized Google’s handling of the book-scanning matter will be fascinated by the details Levy has gathered about the logistical details of the undertaking, especially Page’s unrelenting advocacy of the idea.

In the Plex is strongest in Google’s early years. It describes the intellectual milieu in which PageRank was born; the extent to which Google engineers had to rework the code to make it scalable; how Google both stumbled and brainstormed its way into its successful business model; how it built out its data centers, expanded into new, nonsearch business, and experimented with management styles.

The richness of the storytelling declines with each passing year, as Levy gets closer to topics that are still of strategic importance. The company made executives available for interviews, but they obviously didn’t want to spill all the beans.

After reading the book, avid Google watchers will still want to know: Exactly how much money has YouTube made? What data did hackers get when they broke into Google servers last year? To what extent are Google monetization schemes polluting the very global information that the company says it is trying to democratize, with billions of Potemkin websites that exist only to generate search-driven AdWords checks?

Levy obviously admires Page and Brin, but allows for some unflattering details as well. In one anecdote, Page is presented with air-quality results suggesting that the impurity count inside Google’s offices was something like 0.0001 parts per million, which would normally be considered excellent. Page, though, wanted the number to be zero, and ordered the installation of expensive air filters, which no doubt had a significant carbon footprint.

The person telling Levy this story, rather than admitting that the boss might have gotten a little carried away, insisted the request was perfectly appropriate: “They smell things most of us don’t smell,” the person explained.

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