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The Power of Google

November 30, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: Only seven years ago, Google was little more than a funny name and a big idea. Today some are seeing it as the most important company in the next phase of the information age. The idea is still big: To organize information on the World Wide Web and allow users an easy way to search for the particular information they’re seeking.

The company began as a project of two Stanford grad students, Larry Page or Sergei Bryn. Today it’s worth $120 billion, more than Ford, General Motors, Disney, Amazon, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal combined, thanks to a stock that has risen from $85 to over $400 since it went public in August of 2004.

Google is so popular that it’s now not only a name but a verb. From 10,000 search queries each day in the beginning, Google now fields more than 3,000 searches per second. It’s easy and fast. Type in the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, for example, and you get more than 500,000 references in a fraction of a second.

And the company is adding new features all the time. Google now offers free e-mail called G-mail, online shopping called Froogle, mapping, news aggregation, and digital photo management.

It also offers instant messaging and maybe even entering markets such as Internet-based phone systems like these. But as Google grows and goes mainstream, it’s also raising some new hackles. Privacy advocates worry about innovations such as Google Earth, which provides satellite imagery that allows users to hone in on various addresses.

And some authors and publishers are crying foul over potential copyright violations in Google’s book search, a plan announced last December to make the text of millions of books from collections at Harvard, Oxford and elsewhere searchable online.

Two new books look at Google and search technology and their authors join us now. David Vise, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post is co-author of the Google story. John Battelle was a founder of Wired and The Industry Standard magazines. He now heads Federated media, an online publishing company and is the author of “The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture.” And welcome to both of you.

Starting with you, Mr. Battelle, why is search technology so important and what’s Google’s role in it?

JOHN BATTELLE: Well, it’s funny but once you get on the Internet, of course, you need to find things that you might be interested in. And this has been true ever since the Internet, you know, came of age in the mid 1990s. But toward the late 1990, a lot of companies forgot that and they tried to build little portals within the Internet which kept you on their sites.

What Google managed to do is remember that the reason we search is to find things, potentially things that aren’t in an antiseptic portal like Yahoo or Excite or Lycos, and Google did a good job of bringing people on to their site to search and putting them off to the rest of the Internet to find what they might be looking for. Many other sites gave up on that in the late 1990s. It turns out Google had the right approach. And we can see the results today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, David Vise, you’ve written of Google as having a, quote, passion for disruptive technology. What do you mean by that? And is that a good thing or a bad thing?

DAVID VISE: Well, that all depends on where you sit whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. By disruptive technology I mean technology that changes the way business operates.

Google has come up with an entirely new way for people to advertise on the Internet. That’s very disruptive to newspapers. It’s very disruptive to television programs because lots of advertising dollars are moving to the Internet because that’s where eyeballs are.

Google also has other disruptive aspects of its technology. For example, Google has a price comparison that it does through Froogle. And Wal-Mart, among others, recently said it was very concerned because people would have access to information instantly about where to buy products at the cheapest price.

So disruptive doesn’t mean bad for the consumer; it just means it’s a shakeup in the world of business.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Battelle, how do you see Google seeping its way into the broader economy?

JOHN BATTELLE: Well, what David mentioned in terms of the advertising model is absolutely true. I mean, the entire media business is supported, of course, by advertising.

And it’s quite disruptive when you have an approach where people pay only when they’re advertisements yield results, which is exactly how Google has made its fortune. There are other companies that have done the same.

Google, of course, built a very large technology platform when it built its search engine and is using that platform to create even more disruptive technologies like Internet telephony, which of course could disrupt the entire telecommunications business.

So there are a host of industries that are concerned about what Google might do next including retail, as David mentioned, media and many others.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, David Vise, Google has this very unusual corporate logo: Don’t be evil. You wrote your book as a sort of biography of the company. Its founders see it as a force for good in the world, right?

DAVID VISE: They absolutely see it as a force for good. And “don’t be evil” has a special meaning to software engineers and others. It’s a way of distinguishing Google from Microsoft.

Microsoft began to be seen as the evil empire particularly after the Justice Department filed the antitrust suit. Google uses “don’t be evil” as an effective recruiting tool but more than that I think Google tries — and this is why I wrote the Google story — Google tries to do things I think that are innovative and are very different. And they see that as progress.

One example of that is Google in your genes. Chapter 26 of the Google story is all about a very ambitious project that Google has secretly launched to enable people to Google their own genes, to be able to take the genetic code, which is a very good match for search engine technology and to enable the individual to sit down and actually learn about all of the world’s information, not just on the outside but inside our own bodies, our own biology and find out about diseases, find out what medicines or foods we may be allergic to and lots of other information but all of this, of course, raises potentially troubling privacy questions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what about those privacy questions, Mr. Battelle? You have followed the rise of technology out there in Silicon Valley and up in Redmond as Microsoft grows. How do you see Google?

JOHN BATTELLE: Well I think this is Google’s potential DOJ suit. David is right that Microsoft was the golden company of the mid ’90s. As a matter of fact, it was the Google of the mid ’90s, until about ’95 or ’96 when the early adopters of technology started worrying about Microsoft having too much power and the worm really turned when Microsoft overreached and tried to do too much.

As a matter of fact in 1997 in a Wall Street Journal article, the chief technology officer at Microsoft talked about how Microsoft was going to make a tiny little transaction fee on everything on the Internet. That scared a lot of partners off and led to the DOJ investigation.

So Google stands at a very important point in its corporate history where it has a lot of power and it is working with a lot of world governments as well as large corporations and hundreds of thousands of small businesses as well that depend on it for revenue. And how it handles this new found fame and wealth and it’s trove of personal data it has on many individuals is going to be, you know, critical to whether or not it succeeds.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, one of the most amazing things in reading both of your books, David, starting with you, is that this notion that Google saves every search that each of us does.

DAVID VISE: I think one of the most important things for all of your viewers to be aware of is that every time they do an Internet search on Google, Google saves it on its computers. Every time, if they happen to use e-mail on Google through what’s called G-mail or Google mail, all of those get saved indefinitely as well.

Think about for a moment billions and billions of searches being saved and being matched to your Internet address. Federal government investigators operating under the Patriot Act could get access to that kind of information all in one database about people. And it’s a scary prospect to a lot of privacy advocates.

And what they advise is that people who — I mean most people are not going to stop using Google because of a fear of privacy because it gives them free information fast. And it gives them relevant information fast. Most of the privacy advocates say that if you’re going to continue to use Google actively as a search engine, you might be well advised to put your e-mail account someplace else because it won’t be long before a divorce lawyer or someone else comes along and tries to subpoena the information that’s in Google’s database to try to prove that spouse who’s been betrayed has actually got an Internet trail behind them of G-mails and searches that shows just how shadowy they were.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Battelle, what’s the other side of that though for all those saved searches; in theory they’re saving them to help marketers reach us or us reach marketers? What’s going on?

JOHN BATTELLE: Well there’s always more than one side. Google is saving all of this information because they’re trying to make services and products that are better, more efficient, more — make you more productive, that gets you the right answer at the right time to your search.

The more they know about you, they believe, the more they’ll be able to give you not only the right answer to your search but also provide you with advertisements that are targeted to you, that are highly relevant and useful and of course very profitable to them.

But we are as a culture — and that’s why I created this idea of the database of intentions in the book — we are creating records of our, you know, the bread crumbs through our use of the Web that can be discovered by all sorts of entities.

And while we may trust Google — and certainly most of us do right now — it is a corporation. And corporations change management over time and change policies over time.

So “don’t be evil” is a wonderful sentiment but it’s not necessarily going to guide the company forever.

DAVID VISE: I think, Jeff, that the points that John makes are excellent ones. And I would just add a simple thought for everyone who is going online, Googling all day and all night, and that is Google knows a lot more about you than you know about Google.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. I guess you both agree — still in its infancy. David Vise’s book is “The Google Story” and John Battelle’s is “The Search.” Thank you both very much.

DAVID VISE: Thank you.

JOHN BATTELLE: Thank you.