Journalist John Battelle’s The Search is a surprisingly gripping story of hackers turning insights about information into a billion-dollar business and giant corporations shaping the web to their profit models.
Battelle, a longtime tech journalist, became fascinated with Google and spent three years wandering Silicon Valley, talking to the wizards, the investors and the naysayers.
Battelle’s book shows how search is pushing technology toward the dream of artificial intelligence. He explains how thousands of small businesses thrive and die by the quirks of search-engine algorithms, and details how an unorganized consortium of nonprofits, bloggers and corporations are rebuilding the Library of Alexandria in a digital, distributed and democratic form.
Battelle, who launched one of the internet’s seminal business magazines, The Industry Standard, and co-founded Wired magazine, is certainly qualified to tell the story of how pure search triumphed over bloated portals and in the process revitalized the dream of a revolutionary wired world.
With the exception of a dry, early chapter on the mechanics of search, Battelle’s The Search yields impressive results, pairing a reportorial eye for detail with an evangelical zeal to help readers understand the import of the search revolution.
“Search is no longer a stand-alone application, a useful but impersonal tool for finding something on … the world wide web,” he writes. “Increasingly search is our mechanism for how we understand ourselves, our world and our place in it. It’s how we navigate the one infinite resource that drives human culture: knowledge.”
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Battelle is at his journalistic best in his chapters on Google’s early days. There are also the travails of an oversize shoe merchant devastated by a change in Google’s ranking methods and the story of Overture’s Bill Gross, who started a search engine and sold it for $1.6 billion, yet to this day, rues a single decision that might have earned him the laurels bestowed upon Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
The latter is one of the many tales in The Search that center on business models — in Gross’ case, arbitrage.
Business models fascinate Battelle, who at one point asks rhetorically, “After all, what are publishers but content-based intermediaries between a customer and an advertiser.”
Luckily for lay readers, Battelle explains business models clearly and conveys the excitement of counterintuitive ideas.
Despite his talents, The Search at times feels like a primer on internet business theory, and some passages, such as the one detailing how future search technology will help prevent shoppers from paying too much for Merlot, can feel like retreads of pre-bubble hype.
Despite his business-model obsession, Battelle is also fascinated by the cultural ramifications and the societal promises of Google and ubiquitous information.
He bookends The Search with chapters teasing out the cultural meaning of our online lives, our searches and the paths they take us across the internet.
Battelle finishes by riffing on the possibility of a database of the world’s knowledge, built with metadata, ubiquitous blogging, trackable devices and fuzzy folk tags.
Together, Battelle posits, these might transform the search box into a “reference librarian with complete mastery of the entire corpus of human knowledge.”
“Perfect search — every single possible bit of information at our fingertips, perfectly contextualized, perfectly personalized — may never be realized. But the journey to find out if it just might be is certainly going to be fun,” he writes.
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