Ken Auletta’s book “Googled” helped jog my memory. It was with a strange sense of déjà vu, and a thought of ‘I can’t believe I was somehow part of that’, when I read how Google aimed to spread its search engine through word of mouth and search quality based off of what other people had clicked on. This is exactly how I was turned onto Google in 1999 after hearing about its superiority from a co-worker. It seemed very innovative, and at the time gave no indication of how disruptive Google could be.
The book covers many areas besides the rise and rise of their successful search engine. It paints a portrait of a company founded by two brilliant engineering geeks who are dedicated to user experience, efficiency, innovation, and the motto of ‘Don’t be evil.’ Included are the ways in which the personality of the founders and their goals have both been an enormous resource and challenge to the people around them for building a successful business. I had not read something in-depth about Google’s founding, so this was very interesting. More interesting still are the ideas about how Google fits into the new media and technology landscape. More questions are raised than answers, but after reading this book it became crystal clear how the evolving nature of the digital world will have an impact on everyone in critical areas of business, technology, governance and privacy.
I think much of what Clay Shirky described from ‘Here Comes Everybody’ is tapped into by Google. They initially became very successful as a search engine because they had a promise and bargain with users to give them fast, efficient results not influenced by advertising. They built it on the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ to make searches more relevant, and people felt it worked. Their innovative AdWords and AdSense models allowed them to still have pertinent advertising but not let it color the actual results of their search that was built off data from the users. Shirky described the web as a place where transaction costs for collaboration and communication have been lowered. The transaction costs for a user to tell a search engine their preferences become lower every time they click on a link, whether they realize it or not. ‘The collaborative, open, connected environment that is the web is Google,’ is one way the company is described in ‘Googled’.
Roles are being redefined by Google, just as Shirky mentioned and as is illustrated by Auletta. In both cases none is more clear than old vs. new media. How to exactly define Google News and YouTube? As content providers or platforms for content providers? Quincy Smith says that the platform is the business, and Google can help you monetize your content. News consumption hasn’t gone down, it’s the circulation of newspapers and magazines that has diminished. Google has taken advantage of the digital platform to aggregate news. In Publishing 2.0, a post reads that content doesn’t matter, packaging does, and news providers need a new interface for their news. I agree traditional news providers need to adapt to the digital landscape to compete, but what a standard new platform for news that can be monetized will look like is unclear even though Publishing 2.0 has a post for a new platform for the AP. It will take a new approach, because right now there is no scarcity for the traditional media product. It’s interesting to note that content vs. delivery is the divide with old and new media in many cases. Maybe if old media finds a way to take hold with an innovative news interface, their emphasis on content can be better served.
The way companies adapt, or fail to adapt, to new reality and new technology is one of the big takeaways I had from ‘Googled.’ Stories of companies that couldn’t see the potential of doing old business with new technology sounded like it was becoming a version of Moore’s law. Instead of transistors it’s companies that are increasing the speed in which they add layers to technological capability and experience. They have been and are moving faster to add to what has already been accomplished: computer, platform, interface, application, internet, community, search, commerce, expansion to digital devices etc. For years it was IBM, then things started happening faster with Apple and Microsoft, now Google, and already Facebook could be a potential threat to Google. Lawrence Lessig describes Microsoft’s success as having its operating system that controlled the applications, and now Google has on top of that a data layer that cuts across layers of human life: privacy, competition, access to commerce, and content. Paul Graham pronounced Microsoft dead in 2007, in large part because of Google with its search, Gmail and online applications. Microsoft is clearly not dead, but the idea of the seemingly prescient technology juggernaut of only a decade ago not being able to adapt to the next layer in the ever-moving digital world is intriguing, and one that any media or technology company needs to be wary of. This makes Google policy of 20% time to innovate and work on other projects seem like it may be a critical idea, not just a good one. The ideas that Shirky put forth are constantly evolving and Google and Facebook show this. They are a decentralized way to communicate and get information, layered on what has already been built.
‘Googled’ touches on many areas the company impacts, from competitors to privacy concerns and international politics. Jeff Jarvis in his blog discusses recent anger at Craig’s list and German anger at Google, and I think his explanation for both can be applied to a lot of American sentiment as well: people are going after a disruptor. Auletta describes how people feel Google is the new Microsoft. It’s so big and powerful and so utterly dominates the search and related advertising market. Plus, people were upset about how it handled itself in China, appearing to many to cave in to censorship. Further, the incredible amount of personal data it collects has many people worried and skeptical that Google is just a benevolent company for its users. I know it took me some time to realize just how prevalent Google was in daily life with email, search and calendar as a few examples. Add to that the fact that they have so much personal information and it makes me wonder if I really want to put so much trust into a catchy motto. Time will tell if Google can simultaneously address these burgeoning concerns of the digital frontier and continue to innovate, or if it will be eclipsed by the next company to add a layer to the new technology landscape.