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 / Winter 2006 / Issue 45(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books: Media

His discussion of blogs and their appeal to both their creators and their readers is very worthwhile. Blogs, in his view, broaden the community of discourse to include the community of interest, a perfect example of the combination of fractionalization (almost all blogs are created by individuals) and wikification (the millions of bloggers have created a media category with stunning breadth of coverage). As the mainstream media cut back on international coverage, blogs take up the slack. An Army of Davids describes how an Iraqi blogger reported war crimes that Professor Reynolds subsequently wrote about, alerting an American military blogger in Iraq, who then reported the crimes to authorities, leading to a soldier’s court-martial.

The Google Story: Inside the Hottest Business, Media, and Technology Success of Our Time, by David A. Vise and Mark Malseed, makes the point that Google may be the ultimate wikifier. It is astonishing to realize that one of the biggest and fastest-growing companies in the world has never spent a penny marketing its search service, which is given away to users. Google’s revenues come from advertisements that have two unprecedented advantages: 1) They can be sold to anyone with a budget of any size and can be placed in outlets of any size; 2) The ads are uniquely targeted to ensure that they will appear only to those who are likely to be most interested in them. The genius in Google’s business model is that the world is generating the pages for its ads and the content for its searches.

The core of Google’s wiki-ness lies in its search function, the ranking system of which relies on users. Further, Google does not need to create content; that is done continuously by others. The more content that is added to the Internet, the more Internet users need Google to find it — and the more valuable is Google’s ranking and its ability to target ads on the basis of what people are searching for. The world also serves as Google’s focus group; Google wikifies its consumers into beta testers by encouraging them to try out new services, provide feedback, and even create their own add-ons.

Google’s motto, “Don’t be evil,” turns out to be not just a corporate value but an indispensable part of the brand. The company’s decision not to permit ads for alcohol, pornography, or cigarettes is part of what makes it trustworthy. Google is successful because users trust it to deliver legitimate search results not skewed by relationships with advertisers.

However, that trust was shaken in 2004 when the company launched its popular free Gmail accounts, and then used its own technology to search the content of e-mail to deliver targeted advertising to users alongside their e-mail messages. Users rose up in fury and gave Google a painful reminder of the importance of maintaining their trust.

Regardless, the company continues to be widely admired. Thinking of joining up? Messrs. Vise and Malseed include a copy of Google’s daunting job application in the book. One line asks for a haiku describing possible methods for predicting search traffic seasonality.

Another book about Google published this year, John Battelle’s The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture (Portfolio, 2005), also covers the sociology and policy implications of Google’s search algorithms. It is worthwhile. But The Google Story also covers the business, history, culture, and strategy of this company that in less than 10 years went from an idea to a universally recognized brand. Google’s triumph in taking over the search functions from rivals AOL and Yahoo (and its mistake in failing to predict the reaction to its Gmail advertising practices) makes compulsory reading.

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