Welles: Google these books

Begat by the world of search, Google has become the father of search innovation

The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture

If you want to read a good book or two, try a couple of new ones about Google. Together, they tell the inside story of a unique company with remarkable founders and the larger story of search invention that fostered the rise of Google.

Written by notable journalists, "The Google Story," by Mark Malseed and David Vise, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the

Washington Post, and "The Search," by John Battelle, co-founding editor of Wired, are lucidly written and engaging.

In "The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed our Culture," Battelle describes how the search industry is changing the way we live. In "The Google Story," Vise tells about the unorthodox approach Google has taken in business and technology and the difficult choices that lie ahead for the company. Although the books have some common elements, they tell two distinct but complementary stories. One is a wide view, the other is a deep view. Both are hard to put down.

After reading both books, I became a Googleglut — my term — pigging out on anecdotes and information about the Googleplex, the company's headquarters, and the management styles of the two founders and inventors.

Leaders make the difference

In 1998 Russian-born Sergey Brin, who went to high school in Prince George's County, Md., and midwesterner Larry Page dropped out of a Stanford University graduate school to change the world by creating a search engine that would organize the world's information and make it accessible for free.

Page and Brin are an odd couple — one has a background in math, the other in technology; one is a spender, the other a saver. But the magic of their relationship leads to Google's success.

"You can learn a lot about the process of innovation and management from Google," Vise told me in a discussion about the book. "Leadership makes a big difference. Page and Brin relentlessly attack getting good ideas from people. They hire the right people and turn them loose. They also keep the size of project teams small, with an odd number of people to break ties on ideas."

Battelle notes the strong leadership traits of Brin and Page. "Google guys rule with an iron mouse — Brin and Page are the bosses," he writes. In commenting on his book, he said that Google proves that it is "worth thinking outside the lines."

Battelle and Vise note that Google provides employees with "20 percent time," the freedom to conduct independent research, chat with others or do whatever they want for 20 percent of the work week. And lunch is free at Google, they write.

Vise adds that the company operates much like older companies did, providing medical care and housing on campus to recruit and retain talented employees.

Search sets the stage

"Search drove the Internet and continues to do so, and search has created Google," Battelle writes. "The idea of search is bigger than any one company, and the impact of search on our culture is extraordinarily far reaching."

Battelle's exploration of the history and meaning of search sets the stage for Google, which he brings into focus later in the book. Using the journalistic template of "who, what, where, why and when" to put the search industry into context, Battelle adds the question "how." He explains how a search engine works, simply and clearly. Then he outlines the history of search, from the pre-Web era to AltaVista, the failure of Excite, and on to America Online and Yahoo, which preceded Google's birth.

"The Search" is a story within a story, relating Google to the impact of the Internet and the search for instant knowledge. "The Search" is almost a love story in which knowledge is the object of desire. Meanwhile, Malseed and Vise's book is a chronicle of detail about the makings of Google.

The future

The authors foresee potential problems for Google. Battelle writes that search "is fraught not only with staggering technological obstacles — imagine the data created by billions of queries each week — but with nearly paralyzing social responsibility.... The power of such a tool is staggering, and the threat of its being turned toward ill-considered ends quite real."

Although Brin and Page preach the company mantra of "Do no evil," Google is far from perfect, Vise writes. Google uses that creed as a recruiting tool to steal people from Microsoft, and the risk they face is arrogance and burnout "when you fly to close to the sun," he writes.

In looking at Google today and predicting the future, Battelle and Vise capture the company's uniqueness. "Google remains an extraordinary experiment in bottom-up innovation — ideas still come from its employees, " Battelle writes. "The only thing Google has failed to do so far is fail." In a discussion, he said "the greatest threat to Google is Google, that they do something dumb like expose privacy."

Battelle said that the message in his book for IT is that "we are building something incredibly important beyond ourselves, for search is the breakout application of all work in the IT industry.... Search is how IT is changing lives, how we interact with government, educate kids, understand ourselves, even our relationship with God."

In "The Google Story," Vise writes that Brin and Page have teamed with Dr. Craig Venter, who decoded the human genome, to build a searchable genetic database.

"Genetic information is going to be the leading edge of information that is going to change the world," Venter said, as reported by Vise. "Working with Google, we are trying to generate a gene catalogue to characterize all the genes on the planet and understand their evolutionary development. Geneticists have wanted to do this for generations."

"Google has empowered individuals to do searches and get information and have things in seconds at their fingertips," Venter added. "Where is that more important than understanding our own biology and its connection to disease and behavior? With Google, you will be able to get an understanding of your own genes."

In practical terms, the future for Google may lie in free wireless Internet, while more visionary projects could include access to space via NASA mapping or human genetic searching. Vise writes that "people around the world may see Google and the Internet as one these days, but Brin and Page foresee the potential for human beings and the search engine to grow ever closer."

According to Vise, Brin asked, "Why not improve the brain? You would want a lot of compute power. Perhaps in the future, we can attach a little version of Google that you just plug into your brain. We'll have to develop stylish versions, but then you'd have all of the world's knowledge immediately available, which is pretty exciting."

The books provide much food for thought, Vise's co-author and research colleague Malseed also provides 23 handy tips to get the most out of Google searches. It's worth the price of the book.

And if you'd rather search than read the books, Google has 794,000,000 references for "google."

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.