Today, few names are as ubiquitous as Google. The term “Google” isn’t just a company name; it’s a verb synonymous with web searching. Here’s how this happened.
In 1995, for techies, the web had taken off. People realized that we needed ways to search through it. I was already an old hand at search. I’d started using the internet’s ancestor, ARPANET. Our search tools were, well, awful.
Still, compared to what we had, they were fantastic. Before turning my hand to writing, I’d put myself through graduate school by using the first online database systems, such as NASA RECON, Dialog, and OCLC, for research. Then, as the internet matured, it became searchable with network programs such as Archie, Gopher, and the Wide Area Information Server (WAIS).
When the web appeared, though, people wanted better and easier-to-use tools. The first of these to gain popularity wasn’t a search engine per se, it was a directory to the internet. You know it today as Yahoo. The first true search engine, which combined website crawling, indexing, and searching, was the obscure academic JumpStation in 1993.
JumpStation was quickly followed in 1994 by numerous other search engines in this order: Infoseek, WebCrawler, and Lycos. Then along came AltaVista in late 1995, and everything changed. AltaVista was the first dominant search engine.
AltaVista, with its simple search box interface that any contemporary Google user would recognize at a glance, revolutionized search. You could suddenly find whatever you wanted on the web without knowing where it was or being a Boolean expressions master.
During its brief heyday, 1996 to 1997, AltaVista was what everyone used. Its owner, DEC, even offered other internet services, such as a local version of AltaVista for your PC or server and an email service. Sound like any other big search company you might know?
So why aren’t we saying, “I just AltaVistaed him, and I don’t think he’s right for us.” It’s not that Google was so much better from day one. It wasn’t. AltaVista was cursed, however, with poor management and constant — five owners in five years during one period — ownership changes.
That was bad for AltaVista and good for a pair of Stanford University graduate students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They met in 1995… and did not get along well at all. By the next year, though, they discovered they had interests in common and started work in their dorm rooms on a web search engine by the unlikely name of Backrub.
Fortunately, they renamed their project, Google. The name was derived from the word “googol.” A googol is the name for the number 1, followed by 100 zeros.
A name change wasn’t enough to make Google popular. The real trick was when they devised a new method to organize and rank vast information on the World Wide Web. At the time, search engines ranked websites based on the number of times a search term appeared on the page. However, Page and Brin believed this method was flawed, as it didn’t produce the most relevant results.
Instead, the duo’s groundbreaking idea was an algorithm called “PageRank.” Named after Larry Page, PageRank operated on a simple yet revolutionary principle: the importance of a webpage could be determined by the number of links pointing to it. In other words, a page was deemed valuable if many other pages were linked, especially if those linking pages were themselves deemed important.
First written in Java and Python and running on Sun Ultras and Linux-powered Intel Pentiums computers, PageRank proved a game-changer. Instead of merely counting keywords, it assessed the quality and relevance of web pages. This approach delivered more accurate and useful search results. This started Google on its way to dominating other search engines of its day.
Google’s first search, and the one that showed the difference between it and AltaVista, was for then Stanford University president, “Gerhard Casper.” The key improvement? AltaVista brought up results for the cartoon character Casper, the friendly ghost, while Google .01 found the academic leader.
Recognizing their creation’s potential, Page and Brin sought their first round of funding and got its initial $100,000 investment from Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim in August 1998. With this investment, they rented a garage in suburban Menlo Park, California, owned by their friend and soon-to-be employee #16 Susan Wojcicki. On September 4, 1998, Google was born.
First, though, Page and Brin headed to Burning Man. Then, as now, it’s what tech bros do. To let people know what they were up to they incorporated the famous Burning Man character into their logo. The first Google Doodle had been created. Today, Google owns over half of the festival — mud and all.
Word quickly spread that this new search engine delivered superior results. As I wrote in December 1998 for PC Magazine, “Google “has an uncanny knack for returning extremely relevant results.”
By the end of 1999, Google was processing over 3 million daily search queries. With its clean interface, lightning-fast searches, and relevant results, Google rapidly became the go-to search engine for internet users worldwide. Nothing else could compete. AltaVista struggled until 2010, but it had long been a dead service walking.
Ironically, another of the early search giants, Excite, could have had Google for the bargain price of $750-thousand in 1999. But, Excite CEO George Bell rejected Page and Brin’s offer. You could argue this was the biggest tech acquisition misfire of all time.
Of course, it wasn’t until 2000 that Google turned search into gold by selling keyword-based advertising. While its rivals were faltering and crashing with the dot com bubble, Google was minting money.
It was also well on its way into popular culture. In the same year on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Willow asks Buffy, “Have you Googled her yet?” By 2006, the word “Google” had made it into the Oxford English Dictionary.
But Google didn’t stop at search and advertising. As the company grew, so did its ambitions. Google introduced a slew of innovative products and services. These included Gmail in 2004, and via acquisition, Google Maps and the Android operating system in 2005. Each offering further entrenched Google’s position at the forefront of the technology revolution.
In 2004, Google went public with one of the most anticipated Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) in tech history. This move solidified its financial standing and marked its transition from a startup to a major corporate player. Today, Google, under its new name Alphabet, has a market cap of over $1.7 trillion. If you’d bought $1,000 worth of Google stock when it IPOed on August 19, 2004, it would be worth well over a million dollars today.
It hasn’t all been good news. Google has had its share of problems and scandals. “Don’t be evil,” its motto from the IPO, which was also in its corporate code of conduct, sounds more ironic than aspirational these days.
As it expanded, the company grappled with issues related to privacy, data collection, and antitrust concerns. Critics argued that Google’s vast reach and influence posed potential threats to user privacy and market competition.
With the rise of generative AI, particularly Microsoft and OpenAI’s ChatGPT, some people believe that Google may finally be knocked off its throne as the king of the search hill. However, according to research company Statista, as of July 2023, market leader Google still dominates the desktop search market with 83.49%. The OpenAI-powered Bing, with 9.19% of the global desktop search market, is growing, but Google is in no danger of losing its top rating.
Google is 25 now, and I expect it will easily keep going for another 25 years. Love it or hate it, it’s a big part of our lives.