The subtitle for this book is “How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives”, which is a great summary of the book’s actual content. For me, its been incredible to see the rise of Google over the past decade. I remember when AltaVista, WebCrawler, Excite and HotBot were some of the places you would go when searching the web. Interestingly enough, I was actually working for a search engine company when Google first appeared on the scene. It shouldn’t be a surprise that I was shortly thereafter looking for another job. Google surprised us all back then with some truly disruptive search technology.
Well I digress, what about this book? I’m a huge fan of Steven Levy and I really think that he has written the definitive book on Google to date. Levy was given unprecedented access to the company over a period of several years and it shows in the behind-the-scenes information and insight that he shares.
My favourite sections of the book are the more historical portions. Even though I was an early Google adopter, this book revealed so much about the early history of Google that I had never heard before. The history of PageRank was especially interesting for me. Levy is a masterful storyteller and so much of the book brought back fond memories of the exciting early days of the web.
One of the things that wasn’t a surprise was the fact that Google is primarily an engineering-driven company. Much of the time you can see how this is their greatest strength, leading to their incredible innovations, such as PageRank. However, you can also see how this does give them a blindside at times, and they end up touting something like Google Wave as the next big thing.
Then of course there is a fairly significant section on Google’s unsuccessful foray into China. It really explores what a dilemma the company faced during that period. On the surface the whole thing looked like a clear compromise of the Google motto, “don’t be evil”. However, the book explores the debates and discussion that went on behind the scenes, and you really see that the situation was never that black and white. Despite the the fact that I still have reservations about Google’s involvement in China, I now have a much greater respect for them and I better appreciate what they were trying to accomplish there.
Overall, a highly readable book that gives you an unprecedented look into history of Google and delves deep into what makes them tick. I would say this is an essential read for anyone involved in the software industry. However, anyone who uses the Internet regularly and wants a greater understanding of how Google rose to prominence would also benefit from it. Highly recommended.