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A long-awaited book about
Google is also about the "long tail."
BY MARK WILLIAMS
J ' The Search: How Google and Its Rivals
Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our
Culture is a book that, when the contract for it was an-
nounced in 2002, was probably the most anticipated
book with the most interesting subject and the hottest
author in tech-business journalism. Still, books take a long time
to write. Battelle---who founded the Industry Standard, a now
defunct newsweekly that aspired to be the Economist of the dot-
com boom but plummeted into bankr uptcy in 2001---knew he
had to maintain his status as pundit. So in fall 2003, he began
blogging about writing The Search.
Battelle intended his Searchblog (battellemedia.com) to be
not only a promotional device but also a vindication of his theo-
ries. Blogging would become part of the process of writing The
Search, as readers responded to his postings with arguments and
new ideas that would enrich the nal book.
When I talked to him, Battelle said blogging about the book
while writing it embodied one of its important themes: the shift-
ing of power away from the old order---in this case, old media---as
search and new Inter net services allow information to be shared.
"I like to call this the Force of the Many," Battelle says.
Battelle explains this force by retelling the history of Google.
His main theme is how search will become the means by which
people access every service or application that might r un on a
computing platform, as well as every possible species of data.
"Search already is the spade by which we turn the soil of human
knowledge," Battelle told me. "It's not 'the Web OS,' but it is our
mainstream navigation interface." Battelle develops this line of
reasoning in a fairly original way, and it has been his blog's con-
sistent theme. (It has, of course, been much discussed elsewhere:
see, for instance, Charles Ferguson's January Technology Review
cover story, "What's Next for Google?")
But the heart of Battelle's story is the rise of the "search
economy," which exists (he says) because search has allowed the
commercial exploitation of "long tails." This idea is less original.
The commercial implications of the Long Tail---in the context of
e-commerce, it's become a proper noun---were made famous by
Wired's editor in chief Chris Anderson in an October 2004 article
he wrote for his own magazine. Anderson is himself writing a
book, The Long Tail, to be published next year. But any proprie-
tary feelings he might have about long tails would be misplaced:
like Battelle, he has been blogging his book into existence at
ww w.thelongtail.com, and the ter m is now common currency.
Long tails are not original to Anderson either. The concept of
the long tail will be familiar to anyone who has taken a statistics
class. There are many common statistical distributions whose
graphs show a small number of events occurring very often and a
vast number of events (the long
tail) occurring rarely. In aggre-
gate, however, the rare events can
outnumber the common events.
Battelle is interested in the ap-
plication of search to untapped
markets. In the context of e-com-
merce, long tails have three im-
plications. First, via the Internet,
products with little demand can,
collectively, create a market ex-
ceeding that of the few bestsell-
ers. Second, in the same way that
it enables a proliferation of mar-
kets, the Internet enables a proliferation of vendors. Finally,
thanks to search, a shift from mass to niche markets is likely.
Given the familiarity of Battelle's themes, his book's most in-
teresting aspect may be how it was composed. How did Battelle
weigh the potential bene ts of blogging (dissemination, re ne-
ment, and expansion of the book's ideas) against the inherent
disadvantages (loss of "freshness," potential for others to steal
ideas)? Battelle responded, "The pros win. Folks will buy the
book, I think, because people they tr ust recommend it. Those
folks are my readers on the blog, I hope."
Despite their familiarity, the ideas in The Search are impor-
tant and real. Battelle is a clear and forceful writer. The blog-
powered process that he (and
Anderson) are using may be an
e ective way to re ne ideas and
ensure their survival. But to
judge by Battelle's book, suc-
cessfully blogging a book has
this unintended consequence:
by the time the book is pub-
lished, your most receptive au-
dience may nd your ideas a
Mark Williams is a contributing
writer at Technology Review.
A Tale of Two Blogs
The Search: How Google
and Its Rivals Rewrote
the Rules of Business and
Transformed Our Culture
By John Battelle
Portfolio, 2005, $25.95
The Long Tail:
A Public Diary on
the Way to a Book
By Chris Anderson
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF PENGUIN GROUP
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