Googled: The End of the World as We Know It, by Ken Auletta. 384 pp. Penguin. $27.95

I dare you to name a more plugged-in media and communications technology reporter than New Yorker staff writer Ken Auletta. As comfortable interrogating a network executive as he is interviewing a software genius or bottling a human tornado like Ted Turner, Auletta builds his media-technology books the way a mason builds a wall--upon a firm foundation, one brick at a time and as level as the horizon.

In Googled, Auletta applies this technique--which served him in previous books about the Microsoft antitrust suit, the fall of the television networks and the evolution of the wired world--to chronicle the rise of Google, the world's favorite search engine. (Disclosure: Auletta, a nodding acquaintance of mine, quotes me once briefly--and neutrally.)

If you read the newspapers and magazines that cover Auletta's beat, you already know the basic outlines of the Google story: In the mid-1990s, Stanford University graduate students Larry Page and Sergey Brin devised a new search engine that assessed the value of Web pages based on the links that point to it from other pages. Venture capitalists nurtured the young company, and by 2000 it was the Web's most visited search engine. A public offering in 2004 quickly made billionaires of the founders, as well as Eric Schmidt, the experienced chief executive they'd acquired, as the company revolutionized the advertising market. Today, Google's ubiquity has earned it the status of a verb. You don't just search for information about a person or a subject on the Web, you google it, and Google's search dominance has allowed it to reap 40 percent ($20 billion yearly) of all online advertising revenue. Auletta won unprecedented cooperation from the founders and the company brass to tell the inside story in great detail. But our deep familiarity with Google tends to work against his book. If you've read other books about Google (notably John Battelle's The Search and David A. Vise and Mark Malseed's The Google Story, both published in 2005), the narrative will seem a little worn.

As many commentators have pointed out, Google didn't invent Web search, didn't invent free Web-mail, didn't invent online photo storage or online maps, didn't invent online advertising pegged to search terms, didn't invent blogs, blog search, cloud computing, desktop search, online word processing or a host of other Web-related services and products. The company owes its success less to innovation in all these fields than to the steady improvement of its core function--its search engine. Remember, when Google really got going at the turn of the century, its competitors regarded search as a commodity and believed that the key to building a Web audience from which they could make money was building a "portal"--a branded site that aggregated weather, stocks, news, advertising and tons of other content--to which users would return again and again.

The managers at AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft strategized that keeping Web traffic circulating inside the portal's "walled garden" was the key to success. But the philosophy of Google's founders, Page and Brin, was different. The extreme wideness of the World Wide Web made search the fundamental problem to solve. "If we solve search, that means you can answer any question," Auletta quotes Page as saying. "Which means you can do anything." Google's Zen-simple home page, devoid of ads or other distractions, was designed to speed users to their search results, and those speedy, accurate results changed search from a commodity into a brand, a very respected brand, Auletta notes.

But should Google itself be trusted? Yes, trusted to produce terrific search results, reliable e-mail service, videos aplenty on its YouTube site and economical venues for advertising. But no further. As Auletta probes the sophistry behind the Google slogan "Don't be evil" with his well placed sources in media and technology, the portrait he draws is of a rapacious, opportunistic company that seeks to disrupt--in classic capitalist fashion--whole industries. Its Android operating system--and now a cell phone of its own design--have targeted the mobile phone business. Google Voice has been assigned to conquer the telephony industry. The Chrome browser and the Chrome operating system are aimed at toppling Microsoft's grip on the computer desktop. The Google Books service is a cannon pointed at the heart of publishers. One of Auletta's top sources regards the company as a veritable "Googzilla" that intends to become a digital Wal-Mart for shoppers.

Auletta's thorough, readable account of how the world has become Googled makes you long for the future chapters in the company's history. Will it falter, as Microsoft did, when the antitrust hounds bite it and it starts to choke on its own bureaucratic inertia? Having failed to win in the social media space now dominated by Facebook and Twitter, will it stage a comeback? How long before the next generation of computer whizzes finds a way to leapfrog Google?

Auletta surveys his sources for their speculations but wisely keeps his crystal ball in its case. The abiding lesson of Googled is that nobody realizes that they're being displaced until its too late.

Latest in Book Reviews

Sticky Fingers New York Times Book Review, November 27, 2017

Democracy's Detectives Reason, April 2017

The Voyeur's Motel New York Times Book Review, July 11, 2016

The Rise of the Right to Know: Politics and the Culture of Transparency, 1945-1975 Bookforum, December/January, 2016

Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword New York Times, May 5, 2015

All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid New York Times, Oct. 31, 2014

Hell Before Breakfast: America's First War Correspondents Making History and Headlines, from the Battlefields of the Civil War to the Far Reaches of the Ottoman Empire Bookforum, June/July/Aug 2014

Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy Foreign Affairs, March/April 2014

Book Review Archive

Latest Posts

In a White Room, Washington City Paper, April 5, 2018 Magazine Work

Ben Bradlee's Charisma Trick, Washingtonian, December 2017 Magazine Work

Democracy's Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Reporting, Reason, April 2017 Book Reviews

The Voyeur's Motel New York Times Book Review, July 11, 2016 Book Reviews

The Rise of the Right to Know December/January, 2016 Book Reviews

Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword May 5, 2015 Book Reviews

Diaries: George Orwell Sept/Oct/Nov 2012 Book Reviews

My Romenesko verdict: no harm, no foul Nov. 11, 2011 Columns

Who gets to be anonymous? Nov. 9, 2011 Columns

Unoccupy Google Reader Nov. 3, 2011 Columns

The Tripster in Wolfe's Clothing March/April 2006 Magazine Work

The State of Media Criticism; Getting Sacked Sept. 5, 2011 TV/Radio

Suck Amok Nov. 1, 1995 Miscellany

Me & My Monkey Jan. 13, 1995 Extra!