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"In The Plex" - getting a clearer picture of what Google IS

 5:20 pm on Aug 7, 2011 (gmt 0)

If anyone wants to sail, then they need a real appreciation for the ocean. If they want to go backpacking, they need knowledge of the woods and terrain, and the more accurate the better.

We want to use Google organic search results as one way to market our web businesses, and yet we often have a very unrealistic idea of what, exactly, Google is. And when we operate under false assumptions, sooner or later we can get crushed.

For this reason I work very hard to build a realistic model of what Google is as a business - and what they are not. No kool-aid for me, but no knee-jerk negativity either. Both are distortions and will lead use astray.

I'm currently about 200 pages into a new book called "In The Plex" by Steven Levy, published April 2011. It's good stuff, and I recommend it for anyone who is trying to appreciate what Google is and what they are not.

Google can be very secretive. This is something the book makes clear, as if anyone should ever had any doubts that any business (and especially a tech business) needs to keep some secrets. Especially in the early days, Google hid their rapid growth in size as new data centers were being added. We saw them buying all kinds of fiber networks but we couldn't really see why. The book explains.

The online age itself is disruptive, and within that realm Google itself is quite disruptive. They question every traditional assumption, including what a search engine "should be". They are data driven, and if an innovation tests well, they will go with that. So don't build your business expecting an old-school search engine here. That they will never be.



 5:34 pm on Aug 7, 2011 (gmt 0)

So yes, I am very big on this book. It gives the most rounded picture of Google I've ever had. It gives a well drawn picture of the many innovations that have driven Google's success.

Some favorite quotes:

  • Larry Page has a strong sensitivity to latency and can accurately estimate slow-downs of 200 milliseconds (thought to be the edge of human perception.) This has given rise internally to "Page's law" - every 18 months software becomes twice as slow. Google is determined to avoid this problem.

  • Before Google bought all their own fiber, they were moving very large amounts of data between their colos once a month. They devised a timing trick that allowed them to transfer the data without incurring ANY extra charges.

  • Google writes programs that cannot run on "one computer" - their software requires a minimum of 1,000 machines and they look at that kind of a cluster or data center as "a computer."

  • Interface changes are tested and refined quite intensively, and many final decisions are based on the data, not aesthetics. Sometimes a minor tweak in spacing or the shade of a color can result in millions of dollars lost or gained in Adwords clicks.

  • And yes, organic results do not even look at income as a metric. There are many metrics, but they all have to do with user satisfaction and the pursuit of the "long click" - that is one click on the search result and you're happily away reading that result rather than being right back at the SERPs or making a new search.

    [edited by: tedster at 6:23 pm (utc) on Aug 7, 2011]

  • netmeg

     6:19 pm on Aug 7, 2011 (gmt 0)

    I have this in queue on my Kindle; good to hear the recommendation.

    Your last bullet point is probably the least understood (and most relevant to us) of all.


     6:32 pm on Aug 7, 2011 (gmt 0)

    One thing strikes me as I read is this book - as technically astute and innovative as the founders are, they are also quite willing to toss conventional management "wisdom" out the door. And because they run the company by the data rather than opinion, their iconoclastic management style has nevertheless worked extremely well to date.

    Another point comes screaming through for me. All the disruption that Google creates, including the privacy concerns, the intellectual property worries, etc, seems to impact older generations more than "digital natives" who are the great majority of Google employees. It even seems to me that some of Eric Schmidt's misspeaking came from his attempt to translate the world view of engineers younger than he is into language that more senior generations might appreciate.

    The book continues to open my eyes with every chapter.

    brotherhood of LAN

     6:39 pm on Aug 7, 2011 (gmt 0)

    >run the company by the data

    There's so many philosophical issues about what data/results should appear for searches and to whom... lots of assumptions and bleeding-edge thinking, I bet they're crying out for people to understand more.


     8:02 pm on Aug 7, 2011 (gmt 0)

    The wall street journal had an article about this a few days ago, with an excerpt. They chose the "human stories" for the excerpt rather than the technical stuff, but here it is for those who want to read it:


    Edit: sorry, just realised this is an excerpt from a completely different book, "I'm Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59" by Douglas Edwards, which has just been published.

    But it may be of interest to people anyway (I hope!)


     8:17 pm on Aug 7, 2011 (gmt 0)

    I just read that book, too AlyssaS - also highly recommended and for all the same reasons. Understand the landscape within which you are marketing! It has a different flavor because it was written by an early employee rather than an outside reporter, but that has value, too.


     6:00 am on Aug 8, 2011 (gmt 0)

    Who is Steven Levy?


     6:08 am on Aug 8, 2011 (gmt 0)

    He's a senior writer at Wired Magazine and has been reporting on Google for ten years. See his blog for more: [stevenlevy.com...]


     1:56 am on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    I finished that book a month or so ago and now I am on "I'm Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59" which I find to be a bit more revealing. Check it out.


     11:14 am on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    @tedster trouble is just relying on data (with out undersatnding the limiations of this apprach) can back fire - as humans arn't 100% rational in thier response to (as Macmillan said "events dear dear boy events") events.

    Also do They have enough experiance in realy doing work based on data using a rigorous scentific method Google can (becuase of the nature of search) get way with a lot of "good enough for Jazz" code/systems.

    If we cocked up at my first job you could have major implications one of the projects I worked was simulating a fast breeder reactor screw that up and you could end up with a whole core accident.

    Look at the fiasco over real names on Google+


     1:13 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    If Google was unplugged tomorrow how many visitors would your site see? That's the premise you need to work on.


     1:54 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    To the OP - Wrong title of the thread, should be "getting a picture of how Google develops things", not what Google is. You should start with bunch of faceless MBAs, wall street, data grabs, CIA etc. if you want to know what "Google IS".

    Unless, of course, you plan to "keep the pink dream going".

    Sgt, if Google was unplugged tomorrow, you would get the same amount of traffic, give or take, because all the searchers will go to other competing Search Engines.

    Better question would be "if Google bans your site tomorrow, how many visitors would it get?"


     2:09 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    OK - Im all ears and as always CONSTANTLY struggling to learn new things - so I have ordered from the US the two books mentioned in this thread.

    I suspect that all I will learn is how google is going to destroy me though and that there is nothing I can do about it.

    I hope I am wrong.

    Ranking is no use to me anymore given all the sitelinks in the adwords ads - so I really dont know how or if the book can help - I already know how greedy google are. Knowing how much more they are after wont surprise me - and it certainly wont help me get more traffic through google either.

    I think for me at least - google is dead as a traffic source now.

    So is SEO (dead) by the same fact of google pushing the natural serps below the fold.


     2:44 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    It's important to keep your objectivity, however difficult that may be. Google is not all "pink dreams" by a long shot. Neither are they all evil, as many would have you believe.


     2:56 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    Netmeg - it is very simple for me and millions of other site owners.

    Is my site being pushed down and out off the screen?


    End of story. My site is dead. Searchers cannot see it without effort they rarely put in. The ads are blocking me.

    There is nothing I can do SEO wise - I am number 1 in organic - and I am dead.

    That is both objective and non-evil - its just a fact.


     3:08 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    What is interesting is what is not mentioned.

    Google's exec's informational sharing relationship with the NSA, the National Security Agency.

    Google is a defacto intelligence agency.


     3:19 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    Whats that got to do with getting traffic to my site frontpage?

    Why does that matter to me as a site owner?


     3:19 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    The book does mention the NSA connection - and the fact that Google can and does say "No" to them as well as "Yes". My sense is that Google is more of the common person's champion than many other companies would be in the same situation.


     3:55 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    Oh tedster - come on.

    Common persons "champion" - google - pleaaaasseeeeee.


     4:32 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    MrFewkes - pleaaaasseeeeee yourself. You continually post the most depressing "can't do" points of view. We are not all doomed, unless we choose to believe that. And then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just snap out of it.

    The fact is that Google has often refused to hand over "fishing expedition" data to the feds when other companies, like the big ISPs, Yahoo, Microsoft etc just bow down and kiss bottom.


     5:07 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    How do I snap out of a fact like being shunted down again by adwords?

    I think that book will make me worse. Maybe I was looking for something to make me more depressed and now you gave it to me.

    :) Im not all totally depressed you know. After all - I did beat that spammer ive been going on about for months recently.

    Just that at the same time these bloody adwords put sitelinks in them just as I got to the top.

    Google behaving like that with the feds will land its owners in jail eventually..... I hope :)


     5:09 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    Im happy that there is a way.... just havent found it yet.


     5:27 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    FYI - Adwords with Sitelinks were first introduced in June 2010. See [webmasterworld.com...]


     5:42 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    Thanks for the insights Tedster. "If anyone wants to sail, then they need a real appreciation for the ocean." - makes a compelling introduction.


     6:22 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    Google is more of the common person's champion

    I guess the common people of China or 1/4 of the world's population would disagree with that.


    A June article detailed how Google publishes the estimated locations of millions of iPhones, laptops and Wi-Fi connections, a revelation that led security consultant Ashkan Soltani to condlue that Google made these unique hardware IDs–called MAC addresses–publicly available through a Web interface—for their own purporses.

    – Google’s close ties with the Obama White House have raised concerns about possible special treatment or conflicts of interest at the Department of Homeland Security, the US Patent & Trademark Office, the Federal Communications Commission and NASA.

    – Officials at both DHS and the FCC have raised pointed concerns about weak privacy protections in Google products and whether Google’s well-documented difficulties with privacy protection could create big problems for federal agencies that use its services.

    – A secretive relationship with the National Security Agency. The search giant has a legitimate need to cooperate with the government’s mammoth and secretive code breaking agency in its efforts to defend the integrity of U.S. computer networks. But NSA also has legal power to force Google to hand over the private information of its users. How Google executives handle this potentially conflicted relationship is largely unknown: neither Google nor the NSA are talking.


    Now, just recently, a Federal Judge has determined that a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed to reveal the intelligence connection between the NSA and Google can not go forward.

    A federal judge has ordered that whether Google is spying for National Security Agency or not, you have no right to know.

    "The NSA need not disclose 'the organization or any function of the National Security Agency, [or] any information with respect to the activities thereof,'" U.S. District Judged Richard Leon has ordered.


    "EPIC had sought documents under the FOIA because such an agreement [between Google and NSA] could reveal that the NSA is developing technical standards that would enable greater surveillance of Internet users," the organization explained.

    "The [response] to neither confirm nor deny is a controversial legal doctrine that allows agencies to conceal the existence of records that might otherwise be subject to public disclosure," the group said. "EPIC plans to appeal this decision."


    [edited by: tedster at 11:05 pm (utc) on Aug 13, 2011]
    [edit reason] add the links for attribution [/edit]


     6:29 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    I never said they are a Perfect People's Champion or somthing like that - only that they are "more" in that direction than many other big businesses.

    As I see it, anyone with as much power as Google has needs to walk a very fine line if they cross a government agency. And Google has been willing to say "no". This is an area and a time for pragmatism, not knee-jerk idealism.


     11:44 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    @tedster thanks for posting about this book. It is now required reading for our team.

    I didn't realize how much reading this book would help me with SEO - I was surprised. What the book provides in large part is insight into how Google's founders think, and how they make decisions.

    For me it helps explain some of the missteps Google has made (i.e. complete lack of phone customer support for so long until recently) and keeps making (horrible customer support for Google Places businesses).

    With Larry Page now running Google, it also gives a preview of things to come. That it, expect things at Google to change more rapidly than they have before, because he isn't very concerned with investors or hitting profit targets, he wants to change the world. That means he is into doing risky things.

    You won't be disappointed by the book. The last part drags a bit - gets bogged down by the issues around Google wanting to scan every book in the world - but the rest of the book is great.


     11:51 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

    About this book, I've been trying to get it on sale. I've seen an amazing CNET interview with the guy who wrote it. Recommended people search for that video.

    With the way Google moves I wonder though how much is relevant reading. Those secrets are out, so better change things that were discussed in the book. I have zero trust in them right now to be honest. I'm thinking of that Steven Segal movie "Above the Law". Bigger than government? Let's hope not. No ill will, but certainly I hope they get cranked by the US and European governments.

    [edited by: tedster at 2:20 am (utc) on Aug 10, 2011]


     1:03 am on Aug 10, 2011 (gmt 0)

    Google isn't "the ocean". They are just an oxygen depleting current within it.

    This 66 message thread spans 3 pages: 66 ( [1] 2 3 > >
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