The Verb on Every Fingertip: Google Surfs Into the Future

Conclusive proof of Google’s ascendancy, according to received wisdom, is the fact that its name has become a verb. Becoming a noun, like Jell-O or Kleenex, is so 20th-century. A verb is unprecedented! A company with a trademark verb could practically Xerox money for its shareholders—it could Hoover up dollars.

And not just dollars: “Germans googelte, Finns googlata, and the Japanese guguru,” write David A. Vise and Mark Malseed in The Google Story. Despite the international translations, Mr. Vise, a reporter for The Washington Post, and Mr. Malseed, a researcher for Bob Woodward’s Bush at War and Plan of Attack, don’t subscribe to the linguistic theory of business success. Their ambition is much grander: “Not since Gutenberg invented the modern printing press more than 500 years ago,” the authors declare in their very first sentence, “has any new invention empowered individuals, and transformed access to information, as profoundly as Google.”

It is meet and right to thank Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page that we’re not all AltaVista-ing our way around the Internet, and not just because Googling saves us a few syllables. But Messrs. Vise and Malseed appear to have confused the library with the Dewey Decimal System, or perhaps the card catalog. Gutenberg’s invention would be far less useful if every time you went to check out a book, you had to sift through hundreds of irrelevant works to find the one you were looking for. So Dewey—like Google—deserves praise. But let’s not overstate the importance of the taxonomer.

Still, without the extraordinary—“magical”—ability of Google to index the Web and usefully sort it in response to users’ search queries, the Internet would be a far more forbidding place for newbies and Net veterans alike. According to Messrs. Vise and Malseed, many people “have come to regard Google and the Internet as one.” Their Gutenberg analogy indicates that the authors themselves are similarly confused.

But if it’s not the new Gutenberg, what is Google exactly? It’s part software company, part hardware company, part media company, part ad agency. The hardware may be the most surprising part. “Google’s best-kept secret,” Messrs. Vise and Malseed write, is the importance of a huge network of “garden-variety PCs on steroids” that are assembled by company employees and used to hold copies of everything on the Internet. Google’s genius lies not just in its clever software to organize the Web, but also in its cheap, company-built hardware. In that sense, “We’re like Dell,” says Peter Norvig, Google’s director of search quality.

Messrs. Vise and Malseed list Google among the 20th century’s signature inventions—the light bulb, the telephone, the assembly line, the computer—but their best analogy may be the national television networks: Like ABC, CBS and NBC (O.K., and Fox), Google provides “ads and programming to network affiliates.” Small Web sites and blogs rely on Google to provide targeted advertisements to their users and readers, and they split the revenue with Google. The company also provides the exact same service to Internet giants like, America Online, and The New York Times’ Web site. Even another search engine, Ask Jeeves, relies on Google to sell ads and then target them to its users. “We saw Google as an ad agency,” says Steve Berkowitz, the C.E.O. of Ask Jeeves.

There’s an interesting tale here, which is why it’s disappointing that Messrs. Vise and Malseed tell it so clunkily. Here’s the moment when Google co-founder Larry Page learned about the death of his father: “For Larry, the sudden loss was traumatic. ‘I remember Larry sitting on the steps of the Gates Building, and he was very depressed,’” a Stanford classmate says. Here’s another classmate describing Mr. Page and Sergey Brin in their grad-student days: “They were fun guys to share an office with …. We were all very engaged in what we were doing and all pretty happy.”

Happy is the note Messrs. Vise and Malseed strike throughout their book. The thesis, if there is one, seems to be that Google is a great company started by fun guys. As a result, bad news gets short shrift. The company’s refusal to speak to the tech-news site CNET for a year—after CNET demonstrated how easy it is to use Google to uncover information about private individuals—is barely mentioned. The authors mention offhandedly that Google fired an employee for inappropriate blogging, but they say nothing more about the incident. The chapter about Google Print, the company’s effort to digitize the holdings of some of the largest university libraries, is already outdated: It doesn’t mention the new lawsuit filed to block the venture.

Despite the newspaperish prose and Panglossian tone, The Google Story manages to stay fairly interesting by turning up intriguing factoids. For example, people who type “digital cameras” rather than “digital camera” into Google are more likely to purchase one, which is why the plural keyword costs advertisers about 30 cents more per click than the singular. And you may never have searched for “mesothelioma,” but trial lawyers have bid that keyword—“a type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos”—up to more than $30, making it one of Google’s most expensive. As a young child, Larry Page built “a working inkjet printer out of Legos.” At Stanford, Sergey Brin “developed a love for the trapeze.” Best of all, Google’s bathrooms “have extravagant, touchpad-controlled toilets with six levels of heat for the seat and automated washing, drying, and flushing without the need for toilet paper.” (Doesn’t that sound at least as world-changing as a search engine?)

Again and again, however, Messrs. Vise and Malseed expand on the tedious (“In Greek mythology, Midas was the king whose magic touch turned everything to gold”) and skip over the fascinating (what was that about the trapeze?). The Google Story has a pre-Google feel to it. The original, outmoded search engines were effective at digging up what was on the Internet, but they couldn’t organize the information and present it in a useful way. You could say that in this book, Google has been AltaVista’d.

Chris Suellentrop writes for Radar, Slate and Wired.

The Verb on Every Fingertip: Google Surfs Into the Future