It’s hard to imagine a world without Google. The Mountain View-based search giant has become completely integrated into our online existence. Their name is effectively synonymous with search, a function that arguably made widespread adoption of the Internet possible. By 1996, just three years into the World Wide Web’s existence, there were already 600,000 websites, and service providers who could help us navigate this ocean of data delivered equal benefit to those who wanted to find and those who wanted to be found.
One of the most fascinating things about Google is how not inevitable its seemingly inevitable success was. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were initially adamant that Google would not sell advertising. In his wonderful book The Search, John Battelle tells of his encounter with Google CEO Eric Schmidt in 2002, at which the latter emphatically denied Google was a media company. Google, Schmidt insisted, was a technology company. Only a year later, though, Schmidt was singing a very different tune; today, their business model - matching advertising with content and consumers - is exceedingly clear.
And exceedingly successful. Google’s second quarter earnings were announced a few weeks ago; the company netted $1.48 billion for the three-month period. These results were considered “disappointing” (!) by some, even though they beat analysts’ expectations. Evidently, “revenue growth was not as stellar as some investors had hoped”. (Surely the disappointment also stems from the fact that there’s just no pleasing some people.)
Google’s ‘secret sauce’ is the now-famous PageRank algorithm. I assumed for a long time that PageRank(tm) was called that because it ranks pages; in fact, it’s named after Larry Page, Google’s co-founder. Although it started from a simple idea -- rank sites in importance according to how many other sites link to them - the algorithm has produced a rather odd phenomenon. Because there’s a significant commercial benefit to be gained from appearing high up in the Google SERPs (or Search Engine Results Pages), lots of people put lots of effort into getting there, even if they don’t deserve it.
Eric Schmidt himself has said that they don’t actually want companies to be successful on Google. What they want is to present information that is legitimately relevant to its customers. As soon as PageRank(tm) became something valuable, an entire industry sprang up of people who would create 10,000 bogus websites and link back to yours, thereby boosting your ranking in Google in a way that clearly doesn’t conform to the founders’ intentions. So early on in the development of search as an industry, a dance began, one in which Google continually seeks to find objectively relevant content, while Web sites continually seek to satisfy Google’s criteria for objective relevance.
And now Google is at a critical juncture. Its size is such that continued growth is beginning to create resistance. Where once they were the cheeky upstart Davids, they are now the establishment Goliaths, and behaviors such as entering the Chinese market, or terminating AdWords accounts without explanation or resource, have started to make people wonder just how much power one company ought to have.
Regardless of how you feel about Google, though, you have to admire them. Two techies in a garage with no viable business model have created one of the fastest-growing, most profitable, most admired companies, ever. They affect millions of people around the world and provide the infrastructure for an online economy worth billions. They have, in short, been almost frighteningly true to their mission: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.