I tore through John Battelleâ€™s The Search. Heâ€™s my favorite writer about the search industry, so I was anxious to read the book. It did not disappoint!
Itâ€™s a must-read for people who work for search engines. For those who donâ€™t, just read the first chapter, â€œThe Database of Intentions.â€ The chapter explains his theory, which heâ€™s discussed many times on Searchblog, about the potential wealth of information that search engines know about individuals and society in general. He loves his clickstreams.
The book on the whole is a mixture of Battelleâ€™s ideas, the history of search, the search business, search technology, and the future of search. I like how he weaves in personal stories about people like Louis Monier, Bill Gross, and other luminaries into the larger narrative of search. I enjoyed reading about how Yahoo fits into the overall picture. There were so many mentions of Yahoo throughout the entire book, that Iâ€™m not sure why the company wasnâ€™t called out in the title, such as: Search, How Google, Yahoo, and Their Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture.
One of the biggest things I took away from the book was how transitive search engine dominance can be. Think about AltaVista, Excite, Lycos, HotBot, and all the others who held the top spot, or were near the top, who have since gone into exile or been purchased and devoured by larger companies. A great quote about this is on page 63: â€œAt the center of the web was Netscape.â€ Netscape? I can hardly even remember the days of Netscape being at the center of the web.
I have a few nitpicky comments, but really they’re just small issues. But here goes:
— On page 2 is a discussion about Googleâ€™s Zeitgiest, but what about Lycos 50 and Yahoo Buzz? The Lycos 50 dates back to 1999, and Yahoo Buzz dates back to 2000, or at least thatâ€™s the oldest reference on the Wayback Machine. Not a big deal, but I think these both should have been mentioned.
— WebFountain has a section devoted to it, beginning on page 267, but I remember this project as Clever. Yet I donâ€™t see Clever mentioned anywhere. Is it just a project name change or are they actually different projects with the same people, both of which study hubs and authorities? I had the opportunity of visiting these guys in the spring of 1999 and I enjoyed Battelleâ€™s description of driving up to the fortress-like Almaden complex through the lush, grassy hills.
— On page 165, in the discussion about the online shoe store, owner Neil Moncrief is quoted as saying, â€œWe hung in there, cleaned up the site a bitâ€¦â€ This is a pretty big statement to gloss over like that. Cleaning up the site a bit could mean removing spam-like attributes that caused his site to be demoted in Googleâ€™s results. I wonder what exactly he changed in order for his site to rise again in Googleâ€™s results. I don’t think it was anything purposeful on his part, but still was there something that he’d done on his site that he didn’t realize would have a negative impact?
— On page 167 Battelle describes an advertising scenario about a man whose wife is pregnant. His TV and computer usage becomes target fodder for advertisers. In other words, because he’s interested in baby topics, retailers are able to target baby products to him. Like in paid search. I donâ€™t think the scenario presented is too far from reality, but I also donâ€™t think itâ€™s compelling. I look forward to having my TV and computer integrated, but not for the purpose of finding products. I want convergence for information reasons. I want to be watching a movie on TV and be able to click immediately to a cast listing so I can find out who that familiar looking character actor is.
— On page 252, he writes, â€œIn short, the search engine of the future isnâ€™t really a search engine as we know it. Itâ€™s more like an intelligent agent â€“ or as Larry Page told me, a reference librarian with complete mastery of the entire corpus of human knowledge.â€ Yes, yes yes, like the Librarian of Congress avatar in Snow Crash.
— On page 253 is this quote: â€œEither you scan it in, or you lose it to the moldering embrace of analog obscurity.â€ And yet, I look more at old printed photographs than I do at old videotapes. I donâ€™t lose old photographs. In fact I keep them in albums or boxes and I donâ€™t have to plug in an electronic device to them. Anyhow, my point here is just that archiving digital media is very tricky because it requires compatible devices.
— Where’s LookSmart? Although the company had some major issues, it was still an early player in directories, community, paid listings and paid inclusion. I was surprised not to see it mentioned anywhere in the book. I understand that not all search companies can be mentioned, but the book even discusses MSN using Inktomi, but skips over LookSmart’s directory also being used.
But like I said, these are small points. Overall it’s a great read.
Update 2/24/06: here are a couple pictures of him on his book tour back in early December.