Google turns 12 today. Which, in human terms, means it is almost teenager! Which also means that there are high school kids who have grown up with Google their entire lives. Like them, it is hard for many of us to imagine the company not existing.
And ironically, as industry commentator, Chris Sherman wrote for Search Engine Watch (SEW) in 2003, Google Inc. may never have existed, if it wasn't for Andy Bechtolsheim, founder of Sun Microsystems, giving Stanford PH.d students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, a personal check for $100,000 which they were not able to cash. It's funny to think that the check probably sat in a drawer for a couple of weeks as Page and Brin formed the company. Less than 12 months later, Google Inc had secured $25 million from Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Buyers.
According to Brin, Bechtolsheim had a quick demo of their search technology but had so little time to meet he simply said, "instead of us discussing all the details, why don't I just write you a check? It was made out to Google Inc. and was for $100,000. The investment created a small dilemma. There was no way to deposit the check since there was no legal entity known as 'Google Inc.'"
However, not everyone was impressed with the demo as Bechtolsheim. Mike Grehan remembers an SES San Jose (2004) when Doug Cutting, former Senior Architect at Excite, Steve Kirsch, former founder of Infoseek and Louis Monier former CTO at AltaVista all reminisced about Page and Brin's initial pitch.
And one by one, they each openly admitted that they had been approached by two students with a new idea for a search engine. "Go pound sand I told them" said Steve Kirsh. "I wasn't impressed with their demo at all" said Doug Cutting. "I didn't have the authority to sign a check anyway" said Louis Monier.
The two students which they all turned away, of course, were Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Their new idea for search was called PageRank, and would eventually become the power behind Google.
Also amusing in a, "if they knew then what we know now" sense, are comments by long time industry observer, Danny Sullivan. He first reviewed the search engine on SearchEngineWatch in 1998, and said that the search engine "is really good and even has a catchy name...[But] One thing Google needs is a good facelift."
The article is worth a read, especially to see the contrast in the state of the search industry 12 years later. For instance, back then Sullivan asked the students:
Will Google be going commercial? Page has no opposition to it, but said there's no particular hurry.
"We're Ph.D. students, we can do whatever we want," he said. And what they want is to find the right partners to let them focus on improving relevancy. "I'd like to build a service where the priority is on giving users great results," Page said.
In 1998 Google indexed 25 million web pages in total. Now it indexes millions per day. Google is valued at over $170 billion. Page and Brin are worth $15 billion each, more than double what Mark Zuckerburg (Facebook founder) and Steve Jobs (Apple Founder & CEO) are worth put together.
Yahoo, also a project originating form Stanford, arguably Page and Brin's most likely first investor and supporter of their 'experiment' in 1998, has now shut down their own search engine and is in the process of closing their 'human reviewed' directories.
Bing, Microsoft's own search engine, now powers Yahoo search results and is the closest competitor to Google.
Instrumental in Google's success against other search engines were two of the factors cited above. The eventual facelift of Google was so simple and elegant that users focussed on the search and discovery experience first and foremost, only then to notice that Page & Brin had succeeded in building a better search engine -one that gave results faster and more accurately than any other. The form factors of speed and relevance have defined the search marketing industry ever since.
Nonetheless, like a teenager, Google has not been without it's growing pains. It has been at the very heart of a particularly human story about what it is to live publicly and be part of society. Once proud of it's rather naive mantra "do no evil", it is frequently finding itself in the firing line for human interest issues that are almost esoteric in their complexity. Just today, French courts found the company guilty of defamation via suggested search (autocomplete) against a criminal. Just recently, Google was under fire from German authorities for war-driving, collecting potentially personal data via Streetview.
However, for every 'indiscretion' Google is quick to officially respond in a candid and transparent capacity via their Official Blog. Accusations that Google may have forgotten it's roots whilst it forges ahead into the mobile and TV sectors are easily rebuffed by the fact that it it's built it's empire on open source technology and fostering a continual dialogue with developers.
Furthermore, it could be argued that Google transgressions are no less a product of the times and would affect any company in a dominant position. War-driving, personalized/suggested search, data collection and unlimited storage are capabilities available to any company in the web technology space - quite simply, the technology is available and ready to be put to good use. Many other companies would take the same risks and be much less concerned about fair dealing and openness. In that sense, dealing with insecurities around internet privacy is often a case of "better the devil you know". Even worse, there are clearly governments who simply don't understand the open nature of the web and concomitant techology - so treat the internet as a threat and use it as an excuse to prop up draconian state control policies. It's often Google that is leading the charge of common sense.
So at 12 years old, Google may no longer be a company driven by geeks on Rollerblades but some of that approach lives on and has defined an era. Google's approach to transparency has transformed the way in which all companies communicate and the way in which everyone does business.