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Need Pre-Facebook Movie Drama? Go Read "Googled" This Week

With the Facebook movie’s debut a week away, how about something to keep you entertained while you wait? A book. About that other major internet drama story, Google. The book? “Googled, The End Of The World As We Know It,” by Ken Auletta.

Googled came out at the end of last year, and I’ve been terribly remiss in not writing my review of it until now. It is a masterwork. Required reading for anyone trying to understand how disruptive the internet has been to businesses, and how Google has ridden that disruptive wave, as well as having churned it up.

You want drama? Here’s drama, about how upstart kids started “F…ing with the magic,” as former Viacom CEO Mel Karmazin says in the beginning of the book.

It’s a theme that runs throughout the book and underscores that while this book is about Google, it’s also how the internet has upturned the stability that many business may have assumed they had — and how some still fail to adapt.

I’ve covered Google since the company began, yet even for me, the book had plenty of surprises and revelations. Here are my highlights.

Google Aims To Do Good — And Make Money

Auletta is a veteran magazine journalist for the New Yorker and author who spent nearly three years working on the book, spending ample amounts of time with Googlers of types, including execs at the very top. And in his preface, this was important:

I came away from two and a half years of reporting on Google believing that its leaders genuinely want to make the world a better place. But they are in a business to make money. Making money is not a dirty goal; nor is it a philanthropic activity. Any company with Google’s power needs to be scrutinized.

From my time covering Google, I agree. The company is populated with people who genuinely seem motivated to do good. The company itself has a philosophy that aims to do good. But it is a business, one that makes business decision, plus one that may convince itself so much that it is doing good that it may be blinded to other viewpoints. My Google Hive Mind piece from 2008 touches on this more.

Media Companies: Less Whining About Google, More Innovating

Auletta also talked with executives and others in industries that interact with Google, or which are impacted by it, particularly media companies. Right after the part above, he says:

I also came away impatient with companies that spend too much time whining about Google and too little time devising an offense. Most media companies were inexcusably slow to wake to the digital disruption.

This is the finding of someone who came into the Google landscape to try and make sense of the disruption. It’s a super important observation. If Google is “F’ing with the magic,” as I’ll get into more, it’s not like that magic is getting stuffed back into the bottle.

News aggregators aren’t going to disappear. People aren’t going to cease seeking television shows to watch when they want, where they want. Books are going digital, being made searchable. And parties in all these areas and more aren’t going to reverse the internet. Maybe they’ll stall Google, but the demand that Google feeds, like a river being dammed up, will flow around and seek new channels.

F***ing With The Magic

Perhaps the best illustration of companies unwilling to understand change comes early on in the book. The first chapter opens with former Viacom CEO Mel Karmazin coming to Google in 2003, to meet with Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, as well as Google CEO Eric Schmdit.

Much was discussed about Google’s operations, but Schmidt’s statement about how measurable Google’s ads were, how an advertiser could account for what they did or didn’t do, shocked Karmazin. He told Auletta:

You buy a commercial in the Super Bowl, you’re going to pay two and one-half million dollars for the spot …. I have no idea if it’s going to work. You pay your money, you take your chances.

Anyone born and bred on interactive marketing would largely view that as the talk of a crazy person. Search ads, contextual ads, display ads — you name the interactive marketing type — is highly measurable and held to account far beyond what traditional advertising is ever required to “prove.”  And those digital buyers are moving up in the traditional world, which means in the future, even the Super Bowl will have to be a less chancy proposition.

Karmazin went on explaining how “You don’t want to have people to know what works,”  that you’re selling “mystique,” that “advertisers don’t know what works and what doesn’t. That’s a great model.”

Flip things around. Imagine that Google was taking ad money but not providing metrics, no reporting, no accountability. It would be billed as a scam, one worthy of investigation.

Put it another way, the Wall Street Journal this year has written over 10 articles in its series on internet tracking. Good work, and a subject that deserves attention. But where’s the series on how advertisers are whined and dined by TV networks to spend money blindly, as Karmazin wanted to encourage?

As the discussion progressed, Karmazin said half-jokingly:

You’re f***ing with the magic

Google’s Early Days

The first chapter continues looking it disruption. How Craig Newmark didn’t intend to destroy classified ad revenue for newspapers, but how newspapers themselves failed to react to the internet. How Google’s continued growth has impacted more and more established companies, who look with worry at the company, which itself can send mixed messages.

The second chapter through the fourth follows a tale known to many, Google’s “garage” start-up origins, the focus on ranking by looking at links, including the PageRank algorithm, how other search engines weren’t interested in the company. Yahoo, in particular, worried that better search results would mean fewer page views, the basis of how it was getting paid for ads.

(By the way, for those earlier years — and an outstanding look at the growth of the search space overall — John Battelle’s The Search is another must read).

There’s the search to find a CEO, who turned out to be Eric Schmidt — and how he wound up sharing an office with an engineer who was just looking for an empty desk to use. How he helped to focus and bring order to the company, without killing its creativity. The creation of Google’s informal motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” coined by then-Googler and creator of Gmail, now Facebooker, Paul Buchheit.

There’s also much discussion of the role of Bill Campbell, known in Silicon Valley as “The Coach.” In 2001, he came in to help advise Google’s management, a key mover and a story I’d not known about before. In particular, he seems to have help solidify the relationship between then newcomer Schmidt and Google’s two cofounders. Said Sequoia Capital’s Michael Moritz:

You had two founders who were in their twenties and Eric was twenty years older, and you had to make that relationship work … there were bumps at the beginning that Bill helped smooth over.

Bringing In The Money & Winning AOL

Did you know Visa offered $5 million to put its logo on Google’s home page? I didn’t, but it’s a recollection from Google head of web spam fighter Matt Cutts, that’s in the book.

Google didn’t take the cash, but it did develop its own ad platform, AdWords. The book covers the “light bulb” moment of using a system different from the then-Overture, ranking ads not by how much they’ll pay but also with the clickthrough of the ad. Running ads along the side, separated from editorial results, turned out to be an inspiration from entrepreneur Yossi Vardi. AdSense came along to put those ads outside search, onto pages across the web.

The book also covers Google winning the deal to power AOL’s search results, which Sergey Brin describes as “probably the biggest” deal Google ever did. Not biggest in terms of money involved, that is — but rather, apparently, in ensuring that young Google at the time would have a success.

Indeed, how things have changed. Google recently renewed its deal with AOL, news that’s really just a footnote now. The current AOL deal isn’t crucial to Google’s success. AOL, once a giant that helped build Google, now works to convince investors and others that it’s relevant in the face of Google and Facebook.

Generating Anger

In chapter five, the focus shifts to people that upstart Google began to upset. Larry Page decides to scan all the books in the world. It wasn’t part of a master plan to put publishers out of business or infringe copyright. Rather, Page had built a way on his own to scan books quickly, and he basically thought it would be cool to understand all the information in books and make it searchable.

Google didn’t try to consult with publishers much. If they had, Brin reflects, “We might not have done the project.” But by pushing ahead, they set the stage for the still unsettled lawsuit that followed, a mistake the company acknowledges later in the book.

The launch of Gmail didn’t offer an option to delete, because Google thought why bother. There’s so much storage that they didn’t think people would want or need to delete. It also featured ads that, while generated by computer analysis of email, still freaked out some people and privacy advocates. Delete came; ads stayed. More important, Google showed an attitude problem. Said Terry Winograd, a long-time Google advisor and consultant:

Larry and Sergey believe that if you try to get everybody on board, it will prevent things from happening. If you just do it, others will come around to realize they were attached to old ways that were not as good.

It was attitude, that Winograd said:

is a form of arrogance: ‘We know better.’ The idea that somebody at Google could know better than the consumer what’s good for the consumer is not forbidden.

I’d say Google’s getting better at this, but it still crops up. Google will push out interface changes without offering the ability to opt-out (Google Instant is a notable exception) or products like Google Buzz which didn’t get widely field tested, which implies Google thought it knew all it needed to know.

The chapter gets into the launch of Google News, and cites the Associated Press CEO Tom Curley as viewing that move as Google deliberately “taking everyone else’s work.” It also cites former Wall Street Journal publisher L. Gordon Crovitz, who was upset that the Wall Street Journal’s story on the Columbia space shuttle disaster dropped off Google News over time, a sign that Google didn’t understand that the Journal had better content than others, leading to a future of news as a “undifferentiated commodity” that panders to popularity.

The AP eventually got a deal, quieted down, got upset as that deal neared expiration, then quieted again as it was renewed. As for the Wall Street Journal, it was purchased by News Corp in 2007. Some would argue that News Corp panders to popularity through Fox News. Meanwhile, News Corp has threatened to pull its content from Google, arguing that Google visitors aren’t valuable. Indeed, News Corp-owned The Times blocks search engines from getting its content. So Crovitz’s worries are, ironically, coming true not just because of Google but due to his former publication’s parent company.

Chapter seven continues with enemies that Google was making. Eric Schmidt say hostility didn’t begin until Google went public and started making money. Actually, there was some of this before, especially when Google gained notoriety over being nominated for a Big Brother award on February 2003, a year before Google went public. It was a stunt. Anyone could submit a nomination, but it generated attention — something that only would have happened if there was pre-IPO hostility out there.

Also touched on is an incident many may have forgotten, how Google put CNET on its own form of double-secret probation, refusing to speak to the news outlet for a year, after it used Google itself to gather information for a privacy story that included information about Eric Schmidt’s residence. The ban was lifted after three months.

Anger and upset continues in chapter eight. NBC/Universal CEO Jeff Zucker complains “they built YouTube on the back of our content, and wouldn’t pay us,” though as Auletta notes, NBC didn’t complain if viral clips helped boost TV ratings.

Meanwhile, Viacom CEO Philippe Daumann complained of it being “frustrating” to negotiate with Google, which seemed to change its mind after points were seemingly agreed. Viacom eventually sued (and the suit was recently won by Google, though it’s being appealed). Ironically, one of Viacom’s hit shows on its Comedy Central channel is Tosh.0 — which features clips from YouTube that Viacom neither pays Google for, nor the actual clip’s owner for, to my knowledge.

Understanding & Interpreting Google

The book continues with Google’s growth and pain points that it brought to other companies as part of that growth, with lots of interesting perspectives from all the parties. New developments like the launch of Android are addressed, and time is spent on Google’s “adolescent” struggles.

Too many products. Too much complexity. The rise of new threats like Facebook, and the lose of executives to Facebook, especially Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s current CEO. Google’s inability to retain her was a jarring wake-up call of how important Facebook was becoming and how Google was no longer the start-up that could as easily attract or retain talent, especially talent looking to win big off a start-up’s IPO.

Further in the book are observations from various media executives who see Google as “naive” (CBS’s Quincy Smith) to a “frenemy” to work with but also to watch, especially as they establish direct relations with your own advertisers (WPP’s CEO Sir Martin Sorrell).

To me, these observations are some of the most valuable parts of the book. If you’re trying to understand how Google has impacted and is viewed by many stakeholders, the book is full of such material. You might not agree with the views (or perhaps you might), but they remain the landscape that Google tries to navigate.

Similarly, for those external to Google and trying to understand the moves it makes, to decipher the master plan they assume it has, the book provides plenty of insight from the people at Google itself.

And yes, a movie is coming. Groundswell Productions acquired the rights to Auletta’s book earlier this year and is now seeking a writer. Now that Aaron Sorkin has time on his hands after writing the Facebook movie, The Social Network, perhaps he’ll turn his attention next to Google.

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