As people nowadays can’t imagine living without Internet, Google has become a part of our life. We uses Google’s products everywhere and everyday: Google search, gmail, Google Doc, Google Chrome, etc.; without any doubt, Google is a great companies and makes great things but there is still a big question I always reckon: among all the silicon valley startups, what makes Google stand out from the crowds and take up the top? I got my answer in Steven Levy’s In the Plex; as senior editor and chief technology writer of Newsweek and Wired, Levy has covered Google for more than ten years. Beside the stories on the news, Levy unveils the secrets and unknown details in Google; above all, the most important thing in the story is Google’s values and principles that Googlers has always hold on to.
If you want to learn about Google thoroughly, In the Plex is your best choice. First of all, it is interesting to read and very informative as it includes almost all the important events in Google’s timeline. Levy has done tons of research and interviews; thus, readers are able to get a closer look on Google and obtain a clearer understanding on how Google begin, develop, and transform.
Secondly, Levy successfully unveils Google’s secret in multi-dimensions. Besides giving descriptions and quotes from LSE (Larry, Sergey, Eric), he also quotes engineers, VCs, Google’s employees, many influential figures in technology and important figures who influence Google. Also, Levy gives good background information and provides a broad range of infos about Google’s partners and competitors. All the information help me to see Google objectively and multi-dimensionally.
Moreover, my favorite thing about this book is the hugh emphasize on Google’s motto and how these values and principles influence the decision made by Googlers. It’s especially important to current situation as humanity has been mentioned in daily news and ethical issues occur everywhere in the world. In the Plex can be a good guidance book for startups and companies who is or will be facing ethical dilemma or is struggling for building up culture and values.
Summary and In-Depth Discussion
(In the following passages, I will combine book summary with my review.)
Beginning : Don’t be evil! Do the right thing!
It all starts in Stanford. With the basic idea ‘to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’, Larry Page and Sergey Brin start to create a search engine for the Stanford Research Project. From the starting point, they all agree with their goals and hold on to their values ‘Don’t be evil! Do the right thing!’ It has shaped their way to perfection and been their secret to success.
First takeaway: it doesn’t matter for not being the pioneer; success built on consistency on following the values.
Many different projects (like Alta Vista) and professionals have been working on search and sorting the information on World Wide Web for a long time, but their systems was inefficient and not useful. Violating the searching ideology of fairness and usefulness, those systems generated random and absurdly irrelevant results for business advertisements as it was primarily a means to gain profit. Page and Brin found out the disadvantages of current systems and aimed to make search more efficient and easier for everyone to use. They created the PageRank (it does not mean to ‘rank the page’, but it’s a name after its creator Larry Page) and continuously improved its usefulness and correctness. (Google’s Chinese competitor, Baidu.com’s founder Yanhong Li came up with a search approach based on similar logic as Page’s at the same time, called RankDex.) They kept onto their ‘doing good’ value and changed the game in search: the higher the web quality, the better place the site will be located in; that is, to encourage web-builders to generate more value that benefits viewers.
Second takeaway: To create values to multiple parties and the process of benefiting others will eventually benefit ourselves.
Like others fast-growing startups, Google faced the profit-generating problem at the beginning. They had a hard time to establish their business model and monetize the traffic. Inspired by GoTo’s ad auction system, Google started to build its own system AdWords, and it finally became one of the most successful monetization model in Internet age. Severals things Google had done differently than GoTo made its system more successful: 1) use vickrey second-price auction and make the bidder pay a fairer price; 2) use pay-per-click system and improve the algorithm to show high quality ad that create value to viewers; 3) create Google Analytics to provide data and services to ad customers and help them evaluate its ad effectiveness and the growing potentials; 4) create AdSense for providing monetization services for third-party content creators on their website. Google has limited its share of profit to 30% and let its partner to take the bigger share. 5) conduct careful censor to eliminate irrelevant, improper and ineffective ad regularly (ineffective ads have lower than 1% click rate). Google even shut down Premium Sunset as they determined quality should be the key to rank ads, no matter how much those big advertisers had paid for it. Google has made all these efforts to benefit as many parties as possible because they consistently hold on to its simple but hard-to-do motto ‘Don’t be evil!’; its consistency eventually benefits itself.
Strategical Stage : Building culture
The revenue generated from Ad services makes Google highly profitable and it opens up a new page for Google’s innovations. Now, Google has enough resources to expand services they had and explore other interesting territories.
Third takeaway : Creative vitality and initiatives are key!
The famous formula ‘70-20-10’ is implemented to allocate engineering talent and resources: 70 percent focus on search and ads; 20 percent works on key products and the last 10 percent is for the innovative projects.
Forth takeaway : Have a plan and set up priorities!
Another famous implementation in Google’s management system is OKRs. Every Googlers need to set up objective quarterly and break down the goal into several tasks as key results. The progress will be communicated through meetings and evaluated through reports and grading systems. This systematic approach proves to be a effective way for employees to organize multi-tasks and make their priorities clear. I believe OKRs is not only applicable for fast-growing companies, but it is useful for everyone. To have a plan and set up priorities can be helpful for us in achieving short-term/ long-term goals; good organizational ability can also help us to maintain a better balance when there are overwhelming tasks.
Controversial Stage : Good or Evil?
Google in China
Fifth Takeaway：Pain and failures are inevitable in the process of making changes, not to mention changing a society.
I still remember when Google first set foot in China, its competition with Baidu.com was fierce. People were all curious what it would bring to us and how could it influence people’s work and life in China. Even in my primary school, kids were discussing which search engine is better? The expectation for Google was overwhelmingly high. People believed it would change something, though no one can say for sure what the change would be.
In 2006, Google entered China with the ambition of making positive changes in China. However, there were many factors that made Google’s failure in China inevitable.
- Institutional Discrepancy – Chinese government has its own stance in public information and right of speech. Unlike U.S. having constitution protecting freedom of speech, Chinese government conversely restrict people from spreading the words going against governmental propaganda. The authoritarian policy is deeply rooted in Chinese soil since historically China was constantly under change and turbulence. Hence, out of fear of instability, governmental intervention and harsh regulation carry away as a historical legacy from ancient China. It is not surprising many people commented that ‘Baidu knows China better’; as a China-born and China-based company, Baidu gathered a team that grew up with Chinese ideology. Thus, they know what the government wants and how to survive in this soil.
- Different Cultures – Once Google came into China, it became two entities: Google and Guge (Google China). There wasn’t a good resolution to solve the culture divergence, even though Google tried its best to infuse Google’s values and culture to new recruits in Beijing. The hierarchical structure in company was a big issue; just like the authoritarian government, Google China also seem to have a authoritarian leadership. Although it was not imposed by Kai-Fu Lee on purpose, the authoritarian structure formed involuntarily under the influence of the overall business environment in China.
- Relationship with Government – Before China, Google didn’t have to worry about establishing good relationship with government. But in China, it is crucial for business to success and survive. While giving gifts to government officers were regarded as a normal practice for relations team in China, it was absolutely a departure from Google’s value and motto “Don’t be evil’.
- Problem of Confidentiality – There was also a trust problem between Google and Google China. So within Google’s five years in China, a lot of internal data, applications and resources still remained confidential to Chinese engineers and employees so they were constantly working under difficulties and restrictions. Also, many core products (e.g. Gmail, Youtube…) did not enter Chinese market. The incomplete entry restricted Google’s development in China.
It’s hard to reshape a society entirely but, within Google’s time in China, it made some positive progress for Chinese business in general. Many startups were inspired by Google’s culture and values; they made changes to their business morality. And for Google’s competitors, for example Baidu, it had to improve its business model in order to better compete with Google (Baidu changed its Ad ranking system that is more fair and progressive).
A lot of considerations and non-modifiable factors ultimately led to Google’s retreat from China. Google had difficulty adapted to Chinese business environment and culture. Moreover, Chinese regulation and law were another big issue that cause controversy to Google’s values and motto. They believed they made the ‘right’ decision at that time, but today they seemed to regret it. In the recent news, Google is working on a censored search engine for China and is trying to stage a decent comeback soon.
Now, the line of evil and good become blurred.