The World According To Google

When is a search engine not just a search engine? When it becomes a verb. As the global phenomenon turns 20, we look back through the data files on the meteoric rise of Google to discover just how much it has transformed our lives.

What were you doing in 1998? Watching Titanic win 11 Oscars maybe, or France win the football World Cup first time around. Perhaps you were starting out in your first job, still at school swotting for your NCEAs, or even crawling around in your nappy at home.

Whatever you were doing, Stanford PhD students Larry Page and Sergey Brin were busy creating a new style of search engine. Originally called BackRub would you believe, it then morphed into Googol to suggest the large amount of information it would help you access, quickly superceded by Google, a more user-friendly spelling. And the rest, as they say, is online history.

Fast forward to 2018 and a life without Google seems unthinkable. How on earth would we find our way to a new client meeting without the aid of Google Maps? How would we book an Uber, or keep work and office emails strictly separate to avoid a tap on the shoulder from HR? And more importantly, how would we resolve the ongoing pub argument about what that dangly thing at the back of your throat is called? (it’s a uvula by the way – Google it if you don’t believe me).

Information, travel, communication, Google makes everything easy, and possibly all of us a little dumber at the same time. But just how did those little Blue Red Yellow Blue Green Red letters manage, almost imperceptibly, to permeate every single facet of our lives? Let’s go back to 1998 and find out.

Searching and finding

Millennials look away now. Even in the early 90s if we wanted to find stuff out, many of us were still rifling through the Yellow Pages, calling people up, or (gasp) looking in a book – they’re those hard copy things with words in. In a pre-texting world, voicemail was much more of a thing too, as were foldout maps and atlases. Scary, huh.

Then came the Internet and everything changed, changed utterly. Things called search engines started to appear to help people find what they were looking for: Ask Jeeves, Alta Vista, Lycos, Yahoo – all big names in their day – started to make finding information much easier. But even then many of these search engines were manually curated, couldn’t cope with spelling errors, and search results were often riddled with spam. And boy they could be slow – sometimes searching one server at a time. Then came Google.

The behemoth awakes

Page and Brin started their search engine in 1996 as a PhD project while still at university. Their aim was to create a better system that analysed the relationships between websites to give more relevant responses to user searches. Without going into utter geekdom here, ranking pages using citation notation meant any mention of a website on another site would count as a vote to promote it higher up the search ranking. Whatever the ins and outs, by 1998 they were showing enough promise to secure substantial backing from a number of investors including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

By 1999 things were clicking along nicely, but the founders were experiencing second thoughts. They tried to cash out and sell the business for US$1 million to Excite, who rejected the offer. Page and Brin were subsequently talked down to US$750k by one of Excite’s venture capitalists but the board still rejected them, and have no doubt been kicking themselves under the table ever since.

In 2000 came a big leap. After initially being opposed to advertising of any sort, Page and Brin agreed to introduce text only ads to their creation, and everything snowballed. So much so that by 2002, we experienced the first use of Google as a verb in popular culture – in Buffy The Vampire Slayer if you must know. The company went public in 2004.

Feeling lucky

It would be very easy to become inundated with numbers when it comes to describing the rise of the Google global phenomenon. Like the fact that by 2009, people were making more than a billion searches on it every day. Or that in 2006 ad revenues were up to US$10.5 billion, and by 2012 that figure would top $50 billion. Or that in 2013, just 15 years since launch, according to Interbrand it was deemed the second most valuable brand in the world, after Apple of course, and is now the number one most visited website in the world.

Moneymen and status aside, many people suggest that the real success of Google stems from its culture. It seems ironic now, but right from the start its creators were noted for their collaborative, anti-corporate, almost socialist attitude to the working business day. It’s an attitude that is still embodied to this day at the now almost mythical Googleplex.

Campus life

After outgrowing two previous sites, in 2003 Google leased an office at 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway in Mountain View, California, which they were later to buy outright. It didn’t take long before the new premises were transformed into the weird and wonderful world of Google. Giant rubber balls and a piano in the lobby were just the start. Other facilities include swimming pools, volleyball courts, free laundry rooms for staff, a replica of a SpaceShipOne aircraft and even a dinosaur skeleton. Jurassic Park, eat your heart out.

Since then, the campus has sprawled to become almost a town in its own right. A new 1.1 million square foot headquarters has been added onto the original site, and further building work continues year upon year to accommodate the ever growing numbers of Google staff, now estimated at a staggering 88,000 employees just at Mountain View alone. To put it in perspective, that’s a population almost the size of Dunedin, and considerably larger than Palmerston North.

And let’s face it, who wouldn’t want to work at Google? Staff are well paid, have high levels of job satisfaction and get to work on meaningful projects in what is reportedly a very supportive environment. According to employees, some of the perks of working there also include free meals all day, free onsite gym classes and free roaming massage therapists to ease daily stresses and strains. The Googleplex’s cult status has also seen it parodied for the amoral Gavin Belson’s Hooli empire in the TV show Silicon Valley, and parts of the actual campus were also used for filming in Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson’s humdrum 2013 comedy The Internship.

Beyond the search

Of course the search engine itself is only one aspect of Googledom these days. There’s Gmail, the go-to free email service, the Google+ social network, Google Maps and Google Street View for getting around the neighbourhood, Google Earth, Google Moon and Google Mars for those of us who want to boldly go beyond, Google Hangouts for text and voice communication, Google Energy for renewable power, Google Docs now used by most NZ schools… the list goes on.
There have been plenty of mergers and acquisitions along the way too, most notably YouTube and Motorola. Oh, and the NORAD Santa Tracker, which you can now experience in 3D on Google Earth.

The rule seems to be that as long as it aligns to the company mission of “organising the world’s information to make it universally accessible and useful”, you can pretty much guarantee there’s a Google bod (or bot) working on it right now, possibly on their 20% time.

If you haven’t heard of this, the Google 20% time – in theory at least – gives employees one day a week to focus on their own passion projects.

In fact it is suggested that the now famous time initiative has inspired many of Google’s more innovative projects – Gmail and Google News to name but two. It’s also supposed to help improve creativity and productivity, and even ease potential tensions between unreasonable managers and their workforce.

That said, there are reports out there in the mediasphere that 20% time may indeed now be on the decline, as Google employees simply don’t have the time to be distracted from their main job, which seems a great shame. If that is the case, maybe a 20th birthday would be the ideal time to bring it back into fashion.

Into the future

And so happy birthday to Google, as they continue to conquer the world. It now has over 70 offices in more than 50 countries, with data centers in North and South America, Asia and Europe.

As you read this, someone is also busy implementing one of the approximately 2,400 annual improvements to the Google search engine alone, many of which are so subtle as to be practically invisible to users. Or experimenting in humanitarian uses for Google’s technologies, including right now using search to help people deal with natural disasters by rolling out an AI tool that forecasts floods.

If all this seems like a runaway success story and a peon to a global corporate phenomenon, you’re probably right. So far. Google is incredible. But as it moves into its third decade, there are also things it needs to address.

Sure, the money continues to roll in, and the innovations keep coming. But regulatory change is in the air. Mutterings abound about tax avoidance. Many resent the stranglehold Google has over online ad searches. The European Union also recently fined the company US$5.1 billion over what it deemed nefarious practice in their Android mobile operating system. And then there’s the data issue, a distinctly touchy subject.

Google doesn’t seem to be doing itself any favours either. Invited to a recent US Senate hearing about the ways state-sponsored companies have exploited their platforms, both Twitter and Facebook attended. Larry Page, however, was a no show. Washington didn’t like that one bit.

But maybe all this is doom mongering. Google itself shows no signs of stopping. Yet, humanitarian projects aside, wouldn’t it be great if they also used their billions to try and resolve some of the issues they themselves have created within society? Like funding a more reliable, independent news service, for example. One that helped to filter out the constant stream of misinformation and fake news. It’s a massive undertaking, but if anyone can, Google can, right? And who knows, maybe that is in their future plans already. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the few things you can’t Google to find out.