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Book review: Planet Google

Annie Wakefield
Digital Marketing Manager
7 November 2008

Randall Stross, a Silicon Valley professor, has written a book called Planet Google: How one company is transforming our lives. The subtitle is slightly misleading, as this isn’t a look into the social effects of the company (which would be very interesting in fact), but instead takes a look at Google’s “strengths and weaknesses, and contradictions.” Actually, the book came out with two different subtitles. The UK edition suggests world domination with "How one company is transforming our lives" while the American edition has the plucky subtitle of "One Company’s Audacious Plan To Organize Everything We Know"

For example, according to Stross, Google News, the company’s online attempt at sifting and presenting news stories by purely electronic means, has not been a great success: competitor Yahoo News gets three times as much traffic. The Yahoo site’s secret? It is edited by humans.

Stross writes that Google still only has one business in the traditional, profit-driven sense: the selling of text-only advertisements next to its internet search results. He describes how Google created and refined its search business, pointing out that Google’s ingenious strategy – making billions by matching ads to content it does not own – is reliant on much of the internet remaining an open, under-commercialised environment. "If even a small number of owners of popular websites were to exclude Google … demanding, perhaps, that Google share revenue earned by indexing their sites … then Google’s ability to operate as it has would end," he writes.

The book also deals with the physical side of building a digital empire. According to him Google chose as its hardware "a system cobbled together with inexpensive PC components" early on, rather than more costly specialist equipment. This was a clever, counter-intuitive decision, and the first of many. Google’s racks of cheap servers could easily be expanded or others added. The company then set about placing them as close to its potential customers as possible.

Stross writes "As fast as electrons travel, physical distance still affects online response speed … Reducing this by even a fraction of a second mattered to users, as Google discovered when it ran experiments to see if users noticed a difference between a wait of 0.9 seconds and one of 0.4 seconds … Users were conspicuously more likely to grow bored and leave the Google site after waiting that interminable 0.9 seconds."

The Independent writes that according to Stross, Google is beyond good and evil. He explains that the numerati at Google are meticulously organising their mission to become organisers of all the world’s information. Schmidt has worked out that between 2 and 3 per cent of today’s information is searchable – but that in 300 years time, 100 per cent will have been sorted and indexed by Google. By 2308, we really will be living on planet Google…provided we haven’t found something different by then.

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