Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Book Report: The Search

As a co-founding editor of Wired, John Battelle qualifies in my book for a nerd crush article. His book The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture is a look at the past, present (circa 2005), and potential future of the search industry. Although he got unprecedented access to Google insiders when researching the book, it does a great job of recording the achievements of early search pioneers as well.

It starts by explaining what Battelle calls The Database of Intentions, which is a conceptual model for everything people have collectively looked for in the past when used to predict what we'd like to do next. He explains how close he thought Google was to having just that in 2001:

"Given the millions upon millions of queries streaming into its servers each hour, it seemed to me that the company was sitting on a gold mine of information. entire publishing businesses could be created from the traces of intent in such a database; in fact, Google already started its first: a beta project called Google News. Could it not also start a research and marketing company capable of telling clients exactly what people were buying, looking to buy, or avoiding?"

Before getting to his predictions, Battelle gives some definitions of what search really is and gives a great pre-Google history of the industry. In a way, this is the most interesting chapter because it paints a very accurate picture of what the world thought of search before Google came along: it was a problem already solved. Alta Vista and Yahoo seemed to have met everybody's needs and you were a fool for wanting to compete with them. It is a great reminder that any industry can succumb to a disruptive technology that completely changes the game for everybody. That's exactly what happened here.

The middle part of the book traces Google's history, starting in a curious place: Larry Page's childhood admiration of Nikola Tesla. "The twelve-year-old Page was struck by this fact: regardless of how brilliant and world-changing Tesla's work had been, the inventory received little long-term fame or fortune for his efforts." This path would not be repeated by Google's co-founder.

The breakthrough, of course, came from the great weight given in the Google search algorithm to the number of links that point to a particular site. The engineering required to crunch the massive amount of data to make this happen is explored in detail to satisfy your inner nerd, but done in a way that just about anybody can understand. Ultimately, when that approach proved better than what more established competitors were doing and combined with pay per click advertising, the company we all know today emerged.

Battelle's predictions for what that world might look like given The Database of Intentions are saved for the end of the book and some of them have started to materialize since the books' first publishing in 2005. My favorite unrealized futurist scenario involves buying wine at a local grocery store. You take your PDA and enter into a search site (presumably Google) what you are having for your dinner party that night. The results tell you what wine is best served, but when you find it on a shelf in the wine section, you suspect it is over priced. So, you scan the UPC with your PDA, which, after some grinding, tells you about 3 other stores in a 5 mile radius of your current GPS verified location. The application lets you reserve a bottle, which you can pick up after you get the dessert.

Not coincidentally, this isn't too different from the iPhone "Calamari" commercial, but takes things to a slightly higher level than technology currently offers. But, what The Search does is gets us to think about what we might do with The Database of Intentions when combined with things like RFID's, GPS, UPC's, Google Maps, and electronic stocking information. To spark these kinds of ideas is reason enough to read it.


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posted by Pete Johnson @ 2:46 AM   1 comments


At 6:20 AM, Blogger Tac said...

I loved this book. It was on my list to read and after meeting John recently I finally decided to read it.

Having been involved in the Internet since the mid-late 90's the first part of the book was very nostalgic for me.

I highly recommend it.


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