The National Interest is running my review of Douglas Edwards’s new memoir, I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59. Here’s how the review begins:
In December 2001, an upstart Silicon Valley company named Google posted its corporate philosophy, in the form of a list of “Ten Things We’ve Found to be True,” on its website. At once charmingly idealistic and off-puttingly smug, the list set the tone for Google’s future public pronouncements. “You can be serious without a suit,” read one of the tenets. “You can make money without doing evil,” read another. But it was the most innocuous sounding of the ten principles—“It’s best to do one thing really, really well”—that would prove to be most fateful for the company. No sooner had it pledged to remain a specialist than it began to break its promise by branching into new markets, with far-reaching consequences not only for its own business but also for the Internet as a whole.
Google issued its philosophy at a decisive moment in its history. Although it had incorporated just three years earlier, in late 1998, its eponymous search engine was already widely viewed as the best tool available for navigating the net. But the company was struggling to make money. To succeed financially, its young founders, Stanford grad-school buddies Larry Page and Sergey Brin, knew they would have to supply not only search results but also advertisements tied to those results. At the time, the market for search-linked ads was dominated by another Internet start-up, Overture, which had forged partnerships with major web portals like Yahoo, America Online, Ask Jeeves and Earthlink. Google’s own advertising system, AdWords, was more sophisticated than Overture’s, but big websites feared that the company, which operated its own site at Google.com, might end up competing with them for online traffic. Google’s high-toned philosophy, with its promise to stick to doing “one thing”—i.e., web search—“really, really well,” was meant to reassure would-be partners that it wouldn’t expand into their markets. The subtext was clear: “You can trust us; we’re pure.” …
Here’s the rest.