In Googled: The End of the World as We Know It, Ken Auletta compares the disruptive commercial force of the world's leading Internet search engine to the Edgar Allan Poe short story, The Purloined Letter.
In that tale, published in 1844, an incriminating letter from the private home of the French queen goes missing, and the Parisian police prefect is confounded in his attempts to find the letter in the possession of the chief suspect, an unscrupulous government minister. The prefect is disdainful of the minister's intellect because he is a mere poet, but an amateur detective he consults on the case thinks the prefect and his detectives are limited by "their own ideas of ingenuity."
By putting himself in the frame of mind of the suspect, the amateur detective eventually cracks the case by showing that, rather than conceal the letter, it was soiled, crumpled, and left in plain view in the government minister's room.
"Until 2004," author Ken Auletta writes, "most traditional media executives treated Google the way the prefect treated evidence: They failed to see the digital threat right under their noses." But that was the year Google had its initial public offering, and suddenly it came into plain view just how well the company was doing: Whereas it had taken Microsoft 15 years to generate more than $1-billion in revenues, Google had done so in just six, and the company was drawing more Internet advertising than any other business.
Today, the company does some 3-billion Web searches a day and has expanding into everything from web video via Youtube to digitizing books to selling Google-branded mobile phones. The company's goal is nothing less than "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Meanwhile, the revised goal of many conventional media businesses is to survive the recession and figure out how the heck to keep up.
It's not hard to see how easily Google could be underestimated for a while. Peruse the print or digital version of this newspaper and what do you see? Information, and lots of it, in the form of scores of words, pictures and graphics. Go to Google.com, and what do you see? A mostly blank white page with a mere 30 words - including the multicoloured Google logo - and a box within which to enter search terms.
Whereas most websites are focused on the idea of "stickiness" (that is, how long a visitor stays within the site), Google takes pride on how lightning-quick its computer servers can send you away into cyberspace in pursuit of the best responses to your query. And it does so in a way that has married simple text ads to search results in an extremely lucrative and consumer-friendly fashion.
Thus, behind Google's deceptively cheerful, utilitarian facade is a powerful service that has wrought havoc not just on traditional media outlets, but on the advertising industry and other Internet and technology giants like Microsoft and Yahoo.
Auletta, the veteran New Yorker writer and author of several books on the media, sets out to tell the story of Google's rapid ascent and its implications, while also being mindful of the fact that the short history of the digital age has shown that no brilliant new leviathan is infallible (a point best underscored by the trajectory of America Online, the Web giant of a decade ago, and today a much smaller and less relevant enterprise.)
The title of Auletta's book is well chosen, because Googled is not exactly a profile of the company or a biography of its co-founders, former Stanford classmates and now mega-billionaires Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Auletta gained plenty of access to the usually press-reticent "Google boys," as well as their inner circle, but that aspect of the book does not yield many surprises.
For one thing, beyond some interestingly geeky and quirky personal traits, the duo do not come off as all that interesting: Their chief day-to-day passions are engineering and computer programming, acts that do not lend themselves to page-turning reportage.
And although Auletta does a workable job of explaining exactly how Google's "black box" algorithms work and why it has built a competitive advantage in this phase of the digital age, he doesn't go into much original detail.
What Auletta does present clearly, though, is the radical change in worldview that Google's technology represents to the media industry, which he sums up as "messing with the magic" of how advertising is evaluated and sold, much of which is dependent on human interaction. Google's chief aim is to be "efficient," while the existing media industrial complex has been built on the old axiom (attributed to American department-store pioneer John Wanamaker) that "half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don't know which half".
Auletta does not squander his access to either Google's principals or to other members of the media mogul fraternity who find themselves increasingly at odds with Google yet trying to do business with it (the overused vernacular is "frenemy").
And he provides ample evidence to suggest that despite Google's unusual corporate culture - including its mantra, "Don't be evil" - can sometimes be a liability as well as an advantage. Google's challenges so far in figuring out how to make much money in the exploding realm of online video, and its sputters over the past couple of years in applying its technological prowess to radio and print advertising, show it to be quite fallible.
Auletta, who is as old-school as they come, pauses in his narrative from the time to time to observe that here he is working in a profession - book publishing - that is among those that Google is looking to turn on its ear through its digital efforts. With this smart and important book, he demonstrates that, in the digital age, a little analog can still go a long way.
Richard Siklos is an editor-at-large of Fortune magazine, based in Los Angeles.