Planet Google

Given that you’re reading this review online, chances are you’ve spent some time on Google. Since its 1998 founding, Google has enjoyed explosive growth, and its name is now a generic term, synonymous with searching the Web. And whether you buy the company’s snuggly, anticorporate image or whether you think that image is cover for a sinister, Orwellian agenda — heck, even if you’ve never given Google much thought at all — you will likely find much of interest in Planet Google, the riveting new book by New York Times “Digital Domain” columnist Randall Stross.

“If Google were content to prosper with Web search, and only Web search, its story would be compact,” notes Stross, author of eBoys and The Wizard of Menlo Park. The company, however, is in pursuit of a much grander goal: to organize the world’s information. All of it.

But in the beginning, there was Web search. Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin — both born in 1973 — met as computer science graduate students at Stanford University. The company grew out of an engineering problem. Knowing that the exponential growth of the Web would paralyze a search engine dependent on human curators — as Yahoo’s was — they set about to create a fully automated system for sorting Web pages and judging their relevance to a given search term.

One of the book’s most interesting chapters describes that system, known as the Algorithm, in fascinating detail and clear, accessible language, starting with the “spider,” the software that “systematically ‘crawled’ the Web, collecting copies of Web pages that were then indexed and analyzed, in readiness for matching when a visitor to Google later submitted a search request.” Stross explains that “when Google receives a search request, its search does not at that moment check the world’s Web sites, but rather checks the copies of those sites that were collected earlier and stored on Google’s servers.” The more information the Algorithm devours, the smarter it becomes.

Their next step was figuring out how to make money, and they succeeded spectacularly, stumbling upon the plain-text advertisements — far less obtrusive than banner and pop-up ads — that appear alongside search results. The ads are matched to the search term, resulting in “highly individualized advertising to an audience of one at the best moment — when a relevant topic was on the user’s mind.” The system allows advertisers to target users without knowing anything about them. Google is paid by advertisers only when users click on the ads, which, Stross reports, provide 99 percent of the company’s revenue — more than $16 billion in 2007 alone.

Some of the most entertaining passages of the book involve the human drama that accompanied Google’s astonishing rise. Longtime employee Marissa Mayer recalls showing up for her second day of work and finding Page hiding in the office kitchen because the overwhelmed site had crashed. “The site is down. It’s all gone horribly awry,” he told her. Stross writes, “Mayer said that seeing in such a state led to her estimate that Google had about a 2 percent chance of succeeding.”

Of course Google surpassed Mayer’s expectations, and it was the company’s competitors who often found themselves in a state. According to Stross, when a top software developer at archrival Microsoft informed CEO Steve Ballmer that he was leaving for Google, “Ballmer threw a chair across the office and vowed to ‘bury’ Eric Schmidt.”

Others have expressed criticism of Google, if less passionately than Ballmer. Remember the spider that collects copies of Web pages for storage on Google’s servers? The year of Google’s founding, Stross notes, “The entire World Wide Web could be stored on hard drives that fit within a dorm room.” As the Web has grown, so has Google’s need for space to store its hardware. The company, remarkably open in many ways (the author seems to have been granted a reasonable amount of access), is secretive about its facilities, but Stross estimates that it owns one million computers, “harnessed together to create effectively a supercomputer, the world’s largest.” Google has recently begun to forgo leasing data centers in favor of building its own, closer to power sources. Aided by tax incentives despite creating very few jobs, it has stealthily constructed facilities in small towns across the country, upsetting many affected residents, who see it as “a sinister corporate octopus moving soundlessly, wrapping its tentacles around a small, defenseless community.”

One of the company’s most public missteps was its handling of Google Book Search, its wildly ambitious project to digitize every book in the world. Google, which seemed to think that the worthiness of the undertaking was self-evident, embarked on scanning books in print without the permission of copyright holders, resulting in a number of infringement lawsuits that have yet to be resolved. A copyright flap also greeted Google’s 2006 acquisition of YouTube, which includes uploaded clips of protected content.

Two other ventures, Google Maps and its email service, Gmail, have made the company the focus of privacy concerns. Maps’ Street View features cameras mounted at street level. Because of persistent complaints, Google was forced to blur faces and other identifying details online. Gmail raised red flags for the semantic analysis software that matches advertising to the contents of email messages, leading some users to feel that the company was reading their email.

Privacy issues will likely resurface as the company embarks on another ambitious endeavor, cloud computing, which aims to move all of a user’s personal documents from an individual computer to a centralized server run by Google. As Stross details Google’s far-flung enterprises, some of which have neither an obvious connection to the company’s original information-gathering mission nor any obvious revenue potential, the underlying question is whether a company that’s expanding up and out so dramatically can stay true to its famous corporate credo, “Don’t be evil.”

The author is ultimately circumspect on this point. He reports that Fortune magazine has twice named Google Best Company to Work For (think free meals and subsidized massages at the Mountain View, California, Googleplex) but also alludes to its “zealous pursuit” of information, its “hungry maw,” the “queasiness” and “nagging worry” about its expansion. His misgivings, however, end up being somewhat abstract. What do they amount to?

Stross observes in his conclusion that “no computer company has ever been able to enjoy pre-eminence that spans two successive technological eras.” As Microsoft struggles to maintain its dominance, Ballmer, its CEO, ridicules Google for being a “one-trick pony” that has yet to make money off of anything but those plain-text ads. As of this writing, Google had just unveiled the beta version of its new browser, Chrome, seen as the opening salvo in a browser war with Microsoft. Clearly, the end of this story has yet to be written, but this fascinating book will leave readers ready for whatever comes next.