What Is It About Google?

In 1985, Ken Auletta published Greed and Glory on Wall Street, a national bestseller. This was a colorful account of the battle for control of Lehman Brothers and was the first book that turned the machinations of previously discrete bankers into a topic for public fascination. In 1991, Auletta wrote Three Blind Mice, as the three great broadcast networks "lost their way," in the words of the book's subtitle. Then in 2001 came World War 3.0: Microsoft and Its Enemies, which was about the anti-trust cases that nearly brought the software giant down. Auletta's new book is Googled: The End of World as We Know It. Once again, he has identified an enterprise that is at the core of the way society now operates and, in this instance, how information is disseminated. Based on the history of Auletta's work, the appearance of the book is at once a measure of the company's dominance and a signal that pressures on its overwhelming power are growing.

Google may well go on to ever-greater triumphs. But if it does, it will defy the odds of Auletta's previous subjects and comparable communication companies, such as AT&T and IBM, who discovered that from the pinnacle the only place to go is down. For some time, I've been trying to figure out why Google is different from all those other great businesses that, one way or another, got their comeuppance. In the popular mind, Google has the most positive image of any media company (in the broad way that term has come to be defined) since the golden era of Walt Disney's animated features and theme parks. So what makes Google different from the other behemoths of the Internet age?

The answer, which Auletta's book confirms for me, is that Google is primarily a service, really many services, nearly all of which so far are free to consumers. Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon, the other major corporations of this Internet-based era, are all vendors, taking our money for what they provide. By contrast, Google gives us--gratis--search, e-mail, maps, and a whole host of other evolving products, which is why we like it so much.

What is distinctive about the way Google has developed is that its culture--the universe created by its founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page--has been maintained even as the company has become a huge and very profitable business. I first visited Amazon in 1998 and the place still had a funky ethos symbolized by desks that were doors propped on saw horses. They may still give doors to employees, but the Amazon style has become as classically corporate and aggressive as Wal-Mart. It is not surprising that Wal-Mart sees Amazon as a threat and has started to undercut its pricing on books and DVDs. Amazon's founder, Jeff Bezos, set out to make his company the Wal-Mart of the Web, and is well on his way to doing so.

Whereas Google, for all its multi-billion dollar profits from advertising, still presents itself as a playground for brilliant engineers. Auletta describes the weekly sessions where new employees, "Nooglers," wear beanies with propellers on top and listen to Brin and Page's banter about what is happening to the company. Having visited Google's New York "campus" a number of times, I'm always struck by the festive décor and the sense that no one ever needs to grow-up at Google. Yet that spirit coexists with a fiercely competitive business side, a taskmaster that drives products to market. The apparent openness of so many services--gifts to you and me--is only possible because of techniques for advertising sales and algorithms for search rankings that are intricately designed and so far impossible for competitors to match either in scale or method. Invited for lunch at Google's lavishly stocked cafeteria, you need to sign a nondisclosure agreement at the reception desk.

History shows that every company eventually confronts existential challenges, and Google certainly will some day. The fact that Facebook has become so pervasive a platform for communication among hundreds of millions of people shows that there are ways around search as an entry point to the Internet. Google's YouTube still loses vast amounts on money, even though it is completely integrated into how we organize imagery. The genius for innovation that has taken the company this far will need to be constantly renewed. And the inevitable conundrum that arises out of Auletta's scrupulous portrait is how Google will sustain itself as other geniuses devise products as good or better than the ones we now use.

I started reading Googled in the old-fashioned way, underlining key statistics and Auletta's main observations. But I finally stopped underlining because the facts and insights in this book all support the same fundamental point. This eleven-year-old company has transformed some of the most basic functions in our lives. The company is a phenomenon and deserving of the attention it receives, the awe it inspires, and the resentment of its overwhelming stature that has arisen, especially in the past year. The Google motto of "Don't Be Evil" is a symbol of the Google ethic, but so, increasingly, is the question implicit in one of Auletta's chapter headings: "Innocence or Arrogance?"

(Photo: dannysullivan/Flickr)