Books & Arts | Published:

The world at your fingertips

Nature volume 440, pages 279280 (16 March 2006) | Download Citation


The rise of the Internet search engine Google as guardian, gate-keeper and guide to a wealth of information.

The Search: How Google and its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture


Portfolio/Nicholas Brealey: 2005. 320 pp. $25.95/£16.99 15918408801857883616

The Google Story: Inside the Hottest Business, Media and Technology Success of Our Time

By  &

Delacorte/Macmillan: 2005. 336 pp. $26/£14.99 055380457X1405053712

Thirteen years ago, the release of a set of basic network protocols and browsing software ignited a combustible mixture of bandwidth, computing power and communication media. It was the beginning of the World Wide Web's dizzying rise from a small research project to a technological, economic and social force of global proportions.

Sign of the times: Google co-founders Larry Page (left) and Sergey Brin have an icon on their hands. Image: B. MARGOT/AP PHOTO

Even in the early stages of the web's development, the notion of searching was seen as crucial, given the vast quantities of information available. But the true power of searching as an interface became apparent only more gradually, through the emergence of highly sophisticated tools such as Google, Yahoo and others. Searching is now our primary point of contact with the virtual world: we search to find out about people we are to meet, places we will visit, products we're about to buy; we search as a precursor to communicating and transacting business; and we search because it's the easiest way to get to almost anywhere we want in cyberspace.

The Search by John Battelle and The Google Story by David Vise and Mark Malseed are two recent books that develop this topic for a general audience. They adopt rather different approaches — Vise and Malseed focus primarily on Google, whereas Battelle ponders the idea of searching more generally — but each provides powerful illustrations of the extent to which searching has slipped free of its technological moorings and become a force in both the information economy and in everyday life.

Battelle's book is appealingly organized around a story and a big idea. The story is the history of web searching, with Google as its hero and dominant character; the big idea is what Battelle calls the “database of intentions”, the archived queries and actions of users at sites such as Google, Yahoo, AOL, Amazon and eBay. The database of intentions is not simply a thought experiment designed for the purposes of the book; such archives exist among the massive data sets maintained by these companies. And they form a cultural record, capturing our era's collective interests and desires at a scale and resolution unprecedented in human history.

The story and the big idea are inextricably linked, of course. To begin with, the search industry became profitable, and hugely so, thanks to advertising targeted directly at the intentions of its users. For example, Google's AdWords service, based on a methodology introduced by its competitor Overture, displays ads that are targeted to the current query. This monetization of intent is the basis of the search economy — advertisers can pitch their messages to a user at precisely the moment the user has expressed a concretely formulated interest.

Battelle follows the many strands of this notion, including the tension between paid listings and the ‘pure’ algorithmic search results that are the staple of Google and other search engines; the businesses that live or die based on traffic from search engines; and the new legal and economic terrain into which these developments have led us. Battelle also asks us to consider the dangers inherent in consolidating so much sensitive, highly personal information in the hands of any company — even one that, like Google, promises in its public statements not to be “evil”. He offers illuminating discussions and hypothetical scenarios covering the many ways such data could potentially be used and misused, and this leads to an inescapable conclusion: if you aren't at least a little bit afraid of this future, you probably haven't thought about it hard enough.

Vise and Malseed address several of these economic, legal and social issues as well, but with more of an emphasis on Google specifically. This approach limits their consideration of certain broader directions, but it leads them more deeply than Battelle into other topics. Of particular interest is their emphasis on Google's stunning computational resources — a customized system built on more than 100,000 commodity-level personal computers — and on some of the future projects, including potential forays into bioinformatics and genomics, that this technology makes possible.

Each book contains, as a core element, the story of Google itself, from the initial meeting of the founders, through its intellectual and technological evolution as a university research project, and on to its emergence as a public company, a verb and a potent icon of pop culture. It is a fascinating and compelling story, even for those who know its broad outlines. And given the company's origins, it can be read as a parable on the value of fundamental research — on the way the pursuit of long-range, scientifically challenging goals can have pay-offs that extend to the public at large and can ultimately change the world.

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  1. Jon Kleinberg is in the Department of Computer Science, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA.

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