John Battelle’s The Search is more than just a potted history of Google, although that company looms large throughout his book; rather, it’s a book which takes stock of Google’s giddy rise, the search engine wars between Google, Yahoo! and MSN, and the arrival of online contextual advertising which has irrevocably changed the nature of advertising itself. Battelle recognises that the real story about the search engines is actually outside the admittedly fascinating geek arms race between the big players: what’s important is what the very act of searching for information on the Internet means for business and consumer alike. The simple act of keying in a phrase to a search engine is carried out billions of times a day and in totality provides an unprecedented map of human desires. The commercial ramifications are obvious, but our culture and our access to information are also being transformed by the nature of search. Put it this way – once the Net becomes a daily part of your life, it’s hard to imagine doing without it.
It’s difficult not to sink into hyperbole when discussing search engines, given the frankly insane stats generated by Google’s meteoric rise (from zero to $1.3 billion annual revenue in five years, biggest IPO in Silicon Valley, shares at $300 a pop, trimester profits of $300+ million, and so on). But Battelle points out in his introduction that he didn’t want to write a straightforward business biography of Google for the good reason that business biographies don’t get read. There is a lot of coverage in here about the rise and fall of different search engines, to be sure, and Battelle has conducted hundreds of interviews with every key player in the industry to piece together an excellent overview of the industry’s audacious growth. But Battelle is primarily interested in the implications of what the massive leaps in search engine indexing and intelligence mean for the future. The Search, then, isn’t simply a business book or a geek book, although it will be marketed as such: it’s actually tackling one of the most profound but almost invisible cultural influences on our daily lives: how search engines organise and present information in response to our queries. As more and more of our lives moves to being managed through the Net, the companies who can correctly analyse what we are looking for and give it to us in the most hassle free way are the ones who will prosper. And, as a by-product of that, the more users they have, the more they can analyse what’s been asked for before to anticipate what will be asked for in the future. Battelle calls it the Database of Intentions, and mastering the analysis of all those billions of queries is where the money lies.
The most obvious example of the commercial gold in search queries is contextual advertising, those text ads that turn up next to your search results that are related to your query. Still in its infancy, contextual advertising has revolutionised online advertising and had a huge knock-on effect on old media. The targetted nature of contextual ads – they only get served to someone who’s interested in that subject; the ad buyer only pays when someone clicks the link – has meant thousands of businesses that couldn’t afford to advertise can now do so and, crucially, get results of real money-in-the-bank business driven by those ads. Shoestring businesses have enjoyed massive sales boosts as a result of this approach, without having to spend vast sums on marketing. The joy here is that everyone wins – the customer finds what they want, the business gets business, and the search engine makes money for connecting the two together. Advertising becomes – shock, horror – useful and even valued, rather than an irritant. That’s the ideal scenario, anyway, and Battelle provides case studies showing both the up and potentially disastrous downside of relying on search engines to drive business your way.
Contextual ads have not only helped advertisers but also website owners too. The Net’s free culture has always meant that paying for content has been a thorny issue – surfers loathe registering for access to newspaper archives online, much less paying for it. Google’s Adsense program provided a way for sites to have relevant ads to their content appear on the page and in doing so, allowed site owners to earn some handy pocket change too. (Of course, I’m biased here: in the two years I’ve been running Google Adsense on Spike, its monthly revenue has steadily increased as Google tweak the system to display more relevant ads).
As Battelle has pointed out on his Searchblog, now is a great time to be a publisher on the Net, because there are more and more easy ways of earning cash from content. Blog networks like Weblogs, Inc which earn over $2000 a day from Adsense, or probloggers like Darren Rowse who recently earned $15000 in one month from Adsense, show that there’s real money to be made from providing top quality, regular content. Indeed, Battelle has recently launched Federated Media Publishing, which will be teaming up with selected sites to manage matching ads to their content. Battelle, a former editor of Wired and founder of the Industry Standard, is already “band manager” for leading blog BoingBoing, and has considerably increased that site’s revenues since coming aboard.
As founder of the Industry Standard magazine and a co-founder of Wired, Battelle has been round the block in both old and new media, and much of The Search’s vitality stems from his own hands-on involvement in the industry. There’s little of the usual business pomposity about Battelle’s prose. Instead, Battelle writes in a lucid and informal style, clearly in command of his material but confident enough to not deluge the reader with extraneous info to demonstrate his research. The Search is, in short, refreshingly bullshit free.
The same can’t be said for the future of search engines. With the realisation that the potential of search has only just begun, there are real dangers ahead too. Ownership of personal information is the major concern, with some beginning to see the likes of Google not as a benign info provider but a Big Brother like monitor of all online movements. Criticism of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” moral code has also begun, with the company’s current leadership of the search field making it walk point for the whole industry. Gaming contextual advertising is also an increasing problem, with clickfraud and spam blogs on the rise, clogging search results with poor quality websites. Each of the engines is working flat out to find ways to counter these emergent problems, and no doubt as they deliver solutions a whole new set of crises will arise; given the industry’s flux and mutability, it’s hard to imagine a point at which there will be no clouds on the horizon.
For now, though, search remains a huge success story – Google may well be about to have its own stock bubble popped, but the company is profitable and unlikely to be knocked off its leadership perch by Wall Street alone. Yahoo and MSN are moving into the contextual ad field, each looking to get the competitive edge to make advertisers and publishers alike use their particular system. Most importantly, all three are continually trying to find better ways to slice and dice the Database of Intentions to give you what you want quicker, simpler and faster. Google, to my mind, still remains out in front for innovation, constantly testing business boundaries and received wisdom, putting the user experience first and working backwards. In the last five years, it has continually gone its own way and managed to take the industry with it. But Yahoo and MSN and, indeed, people and companies we’ve never even heard of yet, are not to be underestimated. John Battelle’s The Search provides a brilliant illustration that within five years everything in the search world can change absolutely. It has done so already once – it probably will do again.