The story behind a success is always a good read. And, if such a story is presented as a drama, interspersed with bold ambition, envy, struggle for control, rivalry, lawsuits, accusations, counter-accusations and a little humor, it would most likely make a very compelling read. To top it all off, this isn’t a work of fiction – in fact, it’s not even a dramatization of reality. It is a chronicle of events that took place behind the scenes of what in the author’s words is “the hottest commercial, media and technological success of our time”.
The book begins by describing a scene in 2003 where Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin go to a high school in Israel. They explain how Google was born.
Page and Brin were PhD students at Stanford University. Google’s idea was born when Page conceived of downloading the entire web to his computer to try and devise a search program for it. It was a bold idea. Although he had planned to finish the exercise in a week, he could only manage a portion of it even after a year. “So, optimism is important,” Page told his audience, “you have to have a healthy disregard for the impossible.”
It was this optimism that helped Page persist in his plan. He kept downloading the web to his machine and Brin helped him extract the data and make sense of it. According to the duo, it took a lot of effort, a lot of night outings and a lot of vacation work.
After this brief prelude-like start, the story goes back to the beginning, when Page met Brin.
Page and Brin were both PhD students at Stanford and had a lot in common. Both came from families who placed great value on scholarship and academic excellence. Both had fathers, professors and mothers whose work revolved around computers and technology. Computers, mathematics, and intellectual debates and discussions were part of their genetic codes and their daily lives. It was only natural, then, that they got along quite well and started working together.
They also had a very conducive environment for innovation, experimentation and ideation. Stanford is known for churning out several successful Google Digital Show technology initiatives, including HP and Sun (Sun stands for Stanford University Network). People at Stanford are adamant that sometimes, transforming a business from technological innovation has a far greater effect than writing an article about it.
Also, by the time the two were together, a great computer revolution was taking place. The likes of Netscape were creating waves outside with unprecedented IPOs, and the internet was touted as the next big thing. As a result, venture capital was heavily skewed towards financing technology start-ups. These circumstances created a mature environment for Internet-related research and innovation, and Page and Brin believed that a robust search application was the only thing Internet users needed most.
The prevailing search engines at that time provided a far from satisfactory service. There were many in operation: the likes of Lycos, Webcrawler, Excite, and a few others. All of them were not up to par. They would just show a slew of results that didn’t make much sense to the researcher.
At the time, another Stanford duo ran a company they called “Yahoo”. They devised a better search algorithm by creating an alphabetical directory of web pages. Also, another new search engine called AltaVista has appeared. Its search algorithm was based, like other search engines, on the number of times the keyword appeared on the web page, but displayed the results using the now popular concept of web links. A link is essentially a kind of pointer to another web page.
The idea of using links for a search engine thrilled Brin and Page. They started thinking about it in a whole new dimension.
Coming from families who valued academic research, Page and Brin viewed the links as something akin to citations in academic research. In academia, an article was considered good if it contained citations. The more quotes, the better the card. Also, not all quotes were the same. Citations from quality sources added to the value of the document.
Using the analogy, the couple developed their own search algorithm, called PageRank. It depended, among other things, on the number of links pointing to the web page. The more links there are, the higher the rank. Also, links from more reputable websites, such as Yahoo, would have more weight than a link from a lesser website would not