Sunday, January 1, 2012

Google: revolution by numbers

In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our LivesIn the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy

Levy is one of the best informed and best connected journalists writing about tech companies, and this book is the result of more than two hundred interviews with Google staff past and present and his following of the company since 1999. It is, therefore, a uniquely authoritative account of the business and the key people behind it.

Levy paints a picture of a relentlessly rational company - a culture in which you'd be best advised not to make any assertion without a set of numbers to support it. But Google is also a company with imagination, reinventing American corporate conventions unless they can be proved to be a good idea. So, for instance, there was a move to do away with management altogether until it was found, to the surprise of founders Brin and Page, that people actually like to have someone as their boss: it gives structure, and allows them to understand how their work and their problems are part of the company's wider ambitions.

Of the founders, it is Page who emerges from Levy's profile as the surprising natural leader. Introverted yet almost unnaturally ambitious, he is prepared to consider any project as long as it seems impossible. How about harnessing the content of all books ever written? Sure, let's take a quick guess at the numbers says Page: supposing there are 30 million books. Page and senior Googler Marissa Mayer try scanning one as an experiment: 40 minutes for 300 pages. Back-of-an-envelope cost: $10 a book. Total cost: $300m. As Levy puts it: "that didn't sound like too much money for the world's most valuable font of knowledge."

There are wonderful insights like this on every page. Levy is also great on the political and legal problems - with the copyright of books, Google's tortured dilemmas over its presence in China, and over video rights for Google Video and YouTube. And there's an interesting section on how Obama and Google found themselves strangely compatible. But Obama and the ex-Googlers who had joined him in Washington after he became President found that Google's rational approach to problem-solving didn't translate into Washington life as easily as they had hoped.

And for anyone using Google, there are many interesting titbits. You might have already known how Google's initial breakthrough was the PageRank mechanism whereby search results are weighted by the 'authority' of a page as measured by the number and authority of the pages that link to it - like a kind of academic citation measurement.

But the book explains how that is only the start of Google's ever-expanding knowledge about its users and the websites they are searching for. So, for instance, Google assesses the success of its own search results by noting how long it takes each user to click on a result, where it is in the list presented, and whether the user comes back to try another link from the list (which shows they weren't satisfied with the first one). Through such self-educating mechanisms, Google continually improves its performance and makes it harder and harder for rivals to catch up.

Since Google has become so central to our lives, In the Plex is a kind of instruction manual to the modern world. If you don't want to understand the company that has all but succeeded in its ambition to "organise the world's information and make it useful and accessible" you aren't really showing an interest in where we are, and where we're being taken, for better or worse.

View all my reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment