March 10, 2008
Google: Huge Idea, Simple Insight

In the spirit of picking a veteran player to throw out the first pitch at a game, I'll quote the title of a blog post at Search Engine Watch to remark that, "Discovery's Science Channel Has Good New Series On (the) Internet."

Download: The True Story of the Internet, by former editor and writer for Wired, John Heileman, "is no softball show.. . the series gives it to you 'warts and all' and does not hold back the punches on how things have developed so far. The last show I watched discussed the development of search, and told how Excite turned down the chance to buy Google for a million dollars."the famed Oogle logo

The Discovery Channel's page says, "From the founders of eBay, Yahoo, Amazon, Netscape, Google and many others, we hear amazing stories of how, in ten short years, the Internet took over our lives. The style of the story-telling is up close and personal.. . with first-hand testimony from the people that matter."

I've been along for the ride and was very familiar with the story's timelines, but of course here you get to hear about it from the principals, and in their own words. There's always so much more to any story, and this one's very well told.

I also was watching that episode on search, one of four. To me, the most arresting observation was that while the original, breakthrough idea at the root of Google's effectiveness and success came from a programmer, cofounder Larry Page, it was a very simple thought. Page was not crouched over a keyboard or remembering any computer code in order to come up with this construct.

The billion-dollar insight was just this: that a link to a site from another is like a vote for that destination. The more sites link to yours (and the more linked-to their sites are), the better yours must be.

So the most useful search engine will give its results from the sites where the most people look for information or connections on that subject, the ones which the most visitors have "voted for with their feet," or in this case, their eyeballs. (Adwords, the next step in Google's still-astronomical success, was someone else's brainstorm, but they eventually settled. Fascinating story.)

I was working at AltaVista, though on the biz dev/marketing side in Mass., when Google first surfaced. At the time AltaVista was the standard in search, coming from R&D and its creation at their research office in Palo Alto, and put up on the Web as a free demo in the research-lab spirit of, "look at this cool thing we've got!"

But it quickly became evident that Google had a better solution: I remember my friend Don Bradley, AV's genial spokesguy, showing how when you typed "Cadillac" as a search query there, cadillac.com came up first(!). AltaVista had not yet attained that level of algorhythmic hipness (or you might simply say, usefulness), and didn't get it in time to catch the strong updraft from the explosion of online searching that swept Google to its current exalted position.

Technical insight and chops aside, Google, with two guys, the garage, and a VC or two, had the little-guy's advantage of quick response and manuverability. AltaVista, on the other hand, was then a sort of semi-autonomous division of Digital, aka DEC, and still had to get around a dozen people to agree on any action.

(I'd say, in the words of this earlier post here of Mitch's, such a company should "Create In-House Start Ups," but in this case they had started to spin off AV from Digital. The senior board changed directions, though, as they set their sights on eventually selling the whole company, which had been founded by Ken Olsen, a great innovator of his generation.)

On March 15th, The Discovery Channel is beginning a cable run of one of the four one-hour episodes each week. Schedule

Video clips of the show on Science Channel

Posted by at 08:15 PM | Comments (0)

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