The city of Topeka — the capital of Kansas — has renamed itself 'Google' for the month of March 2010, hoping to draw the company's notice so it will be chosen for fibre optics trials that Google has said it will start soon. This event had not, of course, happened when New Yorker business writer Ken Auletta finished work on Googled, but it's a sign of the times that even the home of the Wizard of Oz can't escape the playschool-coloured arm of the white-paged search giant.
Auletta asks, is it innocence or arrogance that leads Google to make, repeatedly, engineer-led mistakes about people? Google has been persistently blind about privacy risks, despite its notorious 'Don't be evil' motto. Many Google products — notably StreetView (in multiple countries), Google Books and most recently Buzz — display the same pattern: launch product, express surprise at complaints, eventually compromise.
Only ten years ago Google was little more than a glint in the minds of fellow Stanford graduate students Larry Page and Sergey Brin. At the time, the received wisdom was that what mattered were portals to attract and keep visitors: Google's notion of getting its customers to leave as quickly as possible to other sites was seen as a pretty dumb idea. When they first demonstrated their new search engine to Silicon Valley angel investor Ram Shriram, he thought it was fast at producing relevant results, but didn't see a market opening for another search engine. He suggested selling it to InfoSeek, or perhaps Yahoo! or Excite. It was only when they reported back on the results of those meetings — Yahoo! said better search results would cost it page views needed to satisfy advertisers — that Shriram began to see their ideas as disruptive technology.
Underestimating Google was a common pastime right through the company's 2004 IPO, when Wall Street analysts insisted the company had no way to lock in customers. Now, of course, things look very different. Google has shaken up advertising, book publishing, newspapers and television; it competes with everyone from eBay (Paypal) to Apple, Microsoft, mobile phone manufacturers and Rupert Murdoch. Who is next to be drenched under a Google wave? And do old media have a future? Advertising, after all, has its limits: it's the first thing companies pare back in a recession.
As a magazine writer and book author, Auletta of course has his own interest in answering that question. As much as people like the sound of 'free', he could not have written Googled without access to funding for his 13 one-week visits to Google, as well as his time writing and doing other research.
But Google, too, depends on advertising. So far, it has managed to keep its revenues rising. But it's in an industry where large companies get subsumed under the next big technology. Ten years ago, AOL was just peaking; ten years before that DEC and Lotus were market leaders. And ten years before that — 1980 — any number of companies were competing to lead personal computing. Will Google prove as enduring as IBM? No-one knows, not even Auletta.
Googled: The End of the World As We Know It By Ken Auletta Virgin Books 384pp ISBN: 978-0-7535-2242-4 £12.99