The Google Story by David A. Vise
With The Google Story David A. Vise provides both an educational and entertaining account of the company Google, Incorporated. The book educates by providing detailed accounts of Google’s day-to-day activities, accounts of major events in the company’s history, and details the philosophy of Google’s philosophy: “Don’t Be Evil.” The Google Story entertains for the same reasons; Google Incorporated and its workers are not only successful computer engineers, they are entertaining to read about.
Central to Google’s success is the “day-to-day involvement of co-founders [Sergey] Brin and [Larry] Page (Vise, 5). Brin and Page met while PhD candidates in computer science at Stanford University in 1995. At Stanford they began to work with each other in whatever interested them. They soon became friends and became known on campus as “LarryandSergey.” Once they chose a project to work on they worked long hours often working late into the early morning “[w]e all kept crazy hours. I remember once at three in the morning on a Saturday night, the Office was full” (Vise, 33). Starting in 1996 Brin and Page began working on downloading and analyzing data from web links. Page decided that as part of his doctoral work he would “download the entire World Wide Web onto his desktop” (Vise, 36). His belief was that such a task was not only possible, but not that difficult. This decision became the basis for the “LarryandSergey” relationship that led to Google.
By the fall of 1998 Brin and Page had made significant advances in their research into computer search engines. They had outgrown Stanford University facilities. Both elected to take leaves of absence from the PhD program and move off campus. From the early days of the company that would become Google Incorporated, it was clear that Brin and Page would be involved in every aspect of the business. Although their academic specialties were in software applications and research, they chose to build their own hardware. Rather than buying their hardware needs from other companies or investing in a mega-computer, they chose to save money by building their own. They bought inexpensive personal computers in large quantities. They stripped them of unnecessary parts, increased their memory and processing capacities and linked them to provide enough computer power and hardware redundancy to handle their search engine (Vise, 77-81). From the software view Brin and Page developed a search engine that quickly provided weighted, ranked results. The most relevant websites were listed first, rather than randomly as early search engines had done or based on payment to the search engine company where those paying fees were listed first. This ranking, punning on Page’s name, is called Page Rank (Vise, 37-41). This dual approach of hardware and software soon produced the world’s fastest and most comprehensive search engine.
Two characteristics of Google separate them from other businesses. First, Brin and Page, both children of college professors, chose to manage the company as if it were a university. Like universities that allowed professors to spend one day each week to work on projects that interested them, Google has a twenty percent rule that allows individuals to spend one day each week working on a project that interests them. This encourages employees to be innovative and (Vise, 130-131). Instead of the typical cubicle dominated offices of many companies, Google has a more open office where people are encouraged to work together, share ideas, and enjoy work. There are “toys” such as large screen televisions and Segue scooters in the offices. Employees are free to bring dogs to work. Free healthy drinks and snacks are always available. Brin and Page have even gone so far as to hire a gourmet chef who cooks gourmet meals designed to be both tasty and healthy. Google has created a fun place to work (Vise, 16, 192-203). A second characteristic of Google is that from the beginning they have insisted their search engine be free to the user. Thus, they have had to gather their revenue through advertising. The system they use, based on an idea “borrowed” from a competing search engine, Overture, is to provide ranked text-only ads to the right of the search results but clearly separated by a vertical line. These ads are listed both based on relevance to the search term and to the amount of money bidders for the ad are willing to pay when the ad is clicked (Vise, 87). Because of these ads, Google makes billions of dollars worldwide each year.
When Google went public in 2004 Brin and Page determined they would remain in control of Google Incorporated and they would do the initial public offering their way. Rather than hiring a traditional Wall Street investment firm, they used a San Francisco firm and offered the stock using a “dutch” auction. People were allowed to bid the maximum amount they would pay per share and how many shares they wanted. Starting from the highest bidder they counted the number of bids downwards until all the shares were assigned. All of those who bid at same amount or higher could buy the stock at the minimum successful price. This auction resulted in giving investors with limited funds the opportunity to buy shares. Brin and Page set up a multitiered stock that allowed themselves to buy stock that had ten times the voting power per share as a regular share of stock. Consequently they assured they would remain in control of Google, Incorporated and could make or overrule any decision by themselves.
Vise clearly shows that Google works in a fashion different from other companies and that he, Vise, approves of these differences. Therefore the reader needs to keep a careful eye on the author’s bias toward Google. Although Google’s motto is “don’t be evil” it becomes clear that Vise views every thing Google has done as complying with this philosophy. However a closer reading of the book reveals that evil is in the eye of the beholder. Clearly Brin and Page have a different view of evil than others do. For example, when Google introduced Gmail free to its users in 2004 it incorporated the ads mentioned above. For these ads to have context relevant ads, the emails had to be scanned by Google so appropriate ads could be posted. Privacy groups reacted negatively against this. Since the one-gigabyte of email space did not require that emails be deleted it is possible to link the searches individuals made on Google with the email they sent. Thus anonymity of searches could be compromised by either hackers who accessed the Google database, or by governments throughout the world. This poses a particular threat in more totalitarian countries and could lead to the arrest and prosecution of individuals who disagreed with the current totalitarian regime. Brin and Page’s response was less than satisfying and was essentially dismissing the problem with a wave of the hand, by stating “. . . as more people actually experienced Gmail, its strengths would win them over and privacy concerns would fade” (Vise, 152-163). In effect, Brin and Page said the threat to individuals in totalitarian governments was overcome by the features of the program. This response seems a clear violation of the Google motto and reinforces CEO Eric Schmidt’s offhand remark that “evil is whatever Sergey is evil” (Vise, 211). This attitude is callous considering Brin and his family escaped from the Soviet Union to gain their freedom. One wonders if Overture, Excite, and AltaVista, companies whose search engines have become obsolete due to Google, think Google has done no evil.
Google is a young company employing mainly young men and women. As the company and its employees mature and the number of employees grows into the hundreds and thousands one cannot help believing this two-person control of Google will not continue to succeed. The Google Story is a good book dealing with a major player in the modern computer industry. It reads easily and quickly. Besides the main text it provides appendixes that include tips for using Google and an interesting aptitude test the reader can use to see if he or she might enjoy working at Google. While the book suffers from the pro-Google point of view of the author, it is worth reading with a wary eye and is to be recommended.
Vise, David A. The Google Story. New York: Random House, Bantam Dell, Delacorte Press, 2005.