Monday, June 19, 2006

Book review: The Search (Battelle)

While I was in Russia I got to do a lot of reading, in fact, I started The Search (John Battelle, 2005) on the plan to Moscow and finished it a week later on the flight back to London.

This is one of those books that got a lot of publicity last year, silly thing is, the anti-hype person inside of me tends to automatically avoid books that get a lot of hype. So, it wasn’t until one of my colleagues at work, Julian, suggested I read this book that I actually bought a copy, then it took me a couple of months to actually find time to read it. Now I have I’m glad I did and I need to say thank-you to Julian - perhaps in future I shouldn’t avoid books because they get a lot of hype.

The book has two themes, the first is the history, creation and growth of Google, in that it is a book in the mould of Start-up (Jerry Kaplan, 1994) - although its not the insiders view Kaplan gives and which makes that book worth reading.

Second it is a history of internet search, which is itself the history of one part of the internet story from 1995 through to 2005. Here the book is more like Robert Cringley’s Accidental Empires (1992) - another book worth reading.

I suppose Battelle could have written two books, one for each subject and just referenced the other. In parts you do get the feeling you are reading alternating chapters of two books but on the whole this approach works. You can’t really talk about Google without talking about Alta-Vista, Gopher, Yahoo and such, and neither can you talk about search without talking about Google so on balance I’m glad he put the two together.

Battelle thinks search is important, and he thinks search will (is) change the world. His argument runs like this: there is a mass of information on the internet, but if you can’t find it is fairly pointless. Therefore, search is key to leveraging all this information. This puts search, and search companies, in a key position to control the internet.

Although the book doesn’t specifically talk of Web 2.0 it does talk about a key part of Web 2.0 and therefore makes you think a lot about how the web is changing and were it might be going. For this reason alone its a good read and I recommend it. And by telling the Google story alongside this the book is a compelling read.

One of the thing the book has made me think about is the Quaero project. For the first time I understand why the European Union is getting involved in search. OK, I understand why, I understand we might consider search a public good, we might want to avoid the control Google, Yahoo or MSN could hold but as of yet I’m yet to see why we should spend public money on a problem the private sector is actively solving.

One footnote of reservation. Battelle almost exclusively talks about internet search, and his arguments are based on internet search. Unfortunately this does miss a big part of the search story and future, that of Internal search, search within the corporation. So there is no discussion of Autonomy, Verity or FAST. This is market that is important and is going to change in the near future, Oracle have just entered and Microsoft have stated an intention to enter. It would have been nice to see a chapter on this but the book still works without it.

So, in conclusion, The Search is worth reading, whether you are interested in technology, business or just the web in general.