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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

First Impression: Inside Larry and Sergey's Brain

I've had the chance to race through Richard L. Brandt's new book, Inside Larry and Sergey's Brain. It's a compelling read.

Because Brandt uses no groundbreaking method (no brain scans, for example), and didn't get insider access to the Google cofounders, I was worried that there would be no original or interesting material here. That fear proved unfounded. Others around them, including Eric Schmidt, are pretty talkative. That combined with dogged, traditional research, and a judicious way of selecting the important parts of the past ten years of Google history, provides an original insight into what makes Google tick. In particular, it's a bracing reminder that Larry and Sergey alone created or fostered most key aspects of this company and (with much help of course) continue to review a vast array of innovations, technology decisions, and operational decisions at the company.

Industry pros, in particular, should read this book to sharpen their game and to improve the accuracy of their assessments of the company's motivations and intentions. The relentless innovation and product focus sets Google miles apart from competitors not only on search and advertising as a whole, but right down to individual feature decisions in a wide variety of emerging product areas.

As someone who has watched the ad auction and the search products, in particular, emerge, I'm struck once again by just how far behind and how dismissive Yahoo and Microsoft were at various stages of innovation, on key areas like how the paid search auction worked, but also, in how much to prioritize search and paid search in overall company priorities.

Mentally "sitting in" on Google's intimate decision-making meetings helps us to remember just why it is we, and consumers, adopted their superior solutions. The others weren't really trying.

The others also lacked a moral compass at many stages of evolution. It's interesting to notice how "in sync" Google was with the zeitgeist of the industry, and with the clearer thinkers and analysts who defined terms for others to debate (such as Danny Sullivan, on the issue of paid inclusion). Google was, many times over, prepared to walk away from money to treat the search engine user experience the way they felt it should be. The founders were always interested in reaching business success, but they were also extreme idealists around core principles.

In their first talks with AOL in 2000, Sergey Brin reportedly marched out of a meeting asking for a can of gasoline and a match to "burn the scum of these people off me." It's little wonder the company was so grateful at the arrival of eventual CEO Eric Schmidt.

Watching the competition unfold today, you get a recurring sense that many of us out here are being too forgiving of Microsoft and Yahoo for their fuzzy focus and follow-the-leader approach over the years on principles, features, and transparency.

Entering the Google mindset, you just want to see people buckle down and work on a product, for heaven's sakes. That's why we rallied around the YSM "Panama" development team, hamstrung as they were by weak management support. That's why we are generally excited about Bing, as a no-nonsense, full scale product effort.

But on the flipside, I think (staying within that mindset) we have every right to be impatient with dithering and corporate-speak. We have every right to feel vindicated when we look back at highly-touted search engines (like the first generation of Ask Jeeves) and conclude that compared with Google, they weren't really doing much except talking.

Staying within the Google mindset makes me very impatient with their competitors on a whole number of fronts. Microsoft's promising efforts are offset by annoyances like the CashBack program for search - a cynical program that flies in the face of why many of us showed for work in this sector in the first place. The quiet shutdown of Microsoft's analytics project, Gatineau, makes us question the true pace of product development.

I'm not a fan of quibbles, so I'm happy to look past the odd factual error or weird turn of phrase in what is otherwise a highly instructive and entertaining book. If it does have one major shortcoming, it doesn't probe enough into the dark side of Google's current power, and the sinister potential inherent in nearly unbridled idealism. It takes Eric Schmidt to say that the founders have mellowed and are more likely today to compromise on major issues of principle. Is he just saying so to appease our fears?

At the end of the day, none of us asked for a single entity to build the next Great Library of Alexandria or to organize and make universally accessible "the world's information." Anyone who believes in decentralization of power, and sound institutional design to prevent a dangerous concentration of power, would agree that the mission in itself -- conceived as the mission of a single, powerful actor -- is inherently a much greater threat than Google would like us to think.

Maybe that's why it's so irritating when Google's competitors, let alone publicly funded institutions and traditional libraries and media, won't work harder and focus better on their products and platforms.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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