“Googled: The End of the World as We Know It” (The Penguin Press, 336 pages, $25.95), by Ken Auletta. Google is best understood in terms of billions. Three billion searches are conducted daily on the site. Company revenues last year exceeded $22 billion. It spent $1.76 billion for YouTube and $3.2 billion for the digital ad company DoubleClick.
And, oh yeah, many executives at ad agencies, newspapers, magazines, television networks, movie studios, phone companies and book publishers see Google as a multibillion dollar threat to their business.
Google was just a nifty search engine without an obvious way to make money before it began brilliantly exploiting the sale of targeted advertising. Google makes its billions from text ads placed next to Google searches and by matching advertisers with Web pages. It has used that revenue to reach into news aggregation, smart phone software, book digitizing and much more.
Executives at Google say they only want to make things better for consumers. Media industry types who see their business practices upended are not assuaged. Auletta, a veteran author and New Yorker magazine writer, explains the roiling crosscurrents of the new media terrain in his page-turning history of Google.
At heart, this is a story about Larry Page and Sergey Brin, two Ph.D. students at Stanford University who designed a search engine that ranked results by the number of links so it would return more relevant results. Auletta paints a nuanced dual portrait of Bring and Page, who come off with a mix of nerdiness, idealism and ? befitting two young men who have been so spectacularly right ? a bit of arrogance.
Brin is the edgier one. He arrives at a meeting with a media titan late and wearing rollerblades; he tests a top legal job candidate by asking her to draft a contract to sell his soul to the devil. Both Brin and Page can seem loopy, but Auletta portrays them as visionaries monomaniacally focused on drafting top engineering talent, treating them well and making sure they create the best product possible.
Engineers to their core, Brin and Page seem surprised that people would bristle over their new, logical ? and sometimes disruptive ? ways of conducting business.
Auletta has been on the media beat a long time and shows it with a perceptive and readable book. Hardly an old-media apologist, he provides an antidote to the prophets gleefully predicting the imminent death of old media and the wonderful world to come of free media for everyone all the time financed by… something.
Auletta had access to Brin and Page, as well as to top Google executives and people running the nation’s biggest media companies. That makes for a rich book, though it works against him sometimes. Auletta includes too much information about too many people, many far less interesting than Brin and Page.
Auletta also wrote a story that, unavoidably, lacks a final chapter. It’s still too early to tell if Google will grow into the $100 billion media company chief executive Eric Schmidt dreams of or follow the path of other “invulnerable” businesses before it like IBM, AT&T or AOL.