Looking back 20 years, we had no idea of what Google would eventually turn into. Today, it is an embedded part of our day-to-day lives. The company has developed drones, smart glasses, gadgets and, last but not least, the world’s #1 search engine. In its webmaster role, Google has become ubiquitous—so much so that its technological advances are now inextricably linked with how we live our lives.
Google has an enormous reach: nearly 30 billion indexed pages, many of which seem to have to do with Kanye West and pornography, not to mention cat images! Each and every second, two million web searches are carried out around the world using Google’s search engine. And even if you get the company’s name wrong, there’s no need to worry because you’ll get to your intended destination soon enough. To make sure of that, the company also bought up a number of “misspelled” domain names (e.g. gooogle.com, googlr.com and gogle.com)!
Google’s market share is approaching a mammoth 90%, while Yahoo and Bing stand at 2.9% and 3.7% respectively. With an estimated market valuation of $750 billion, Google has a workforce of 89,000 employees providing a wide range of services, from email to self-driving cars. In certain digital sectors, it has a quasi-monopoly.
The California-based Internet behemoth is investing everywhere, with huge sums earmarked for cutting-edge sectors, primarily science and innovation. Google brings in the very best and brightest researchers to work on robotics and artificial intelligence (AI)—even the fight against aging! The truly eye-popping projects are being developed by Google X, the company’s most futuristic division.
Google says it seeks to improve human well-being. At the very least, it would like to “facilitate” our day-to-day existence while (most importantly) maintaining its high-profile omnipresence. Its series of successful gambles have sparked criticism among the company’s detractors, as well as raising a number of ethical questions.
To understand how Google managed to become an empire of such magnitude in less than 20 years, i.e. by imposing its will and outsmarting its competitors, we must take a glimpse back at the not-so-distant past.
In the 1990s, the process by which search engines classified pages was quite basic and not very efficient. Pages were ranked based on the keywords they contained. For instance, a webpage containing 50 occurrences of the word “jewel” was more likely to end up at the top of the search results. In contrast, a page that contained only one occurrence might end up much further down the list, even if belonged to the biggest jeweller in the country! Twenty years ago, search engines did not take “page importance” into consideration because the ranking process was random.
The next chapter of the story belongs to Stanford University students Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who, between 1995 and 1998, upset the apple cart by observing how online searches were classified. Based on their analysis, they devised the following principle: if a webpage has more links pointing towards it, it will be more “important” and more reliable. Their findings gave rise to an algorithm (known as PageRank) that was used to rank all webpages—and it did so very efficiently. This classification technique was then used to fuel a new search engine known as BackRub, eventually renamed Google. This unusual name comes from the mathematical term “googol” (10100), which is the number 1 followed by 100 zeros.
The company was officially created on September 4, 1998. Gaining a foothold via word of mouth, growth was rapid: 20% a month! Within three years, the traffic surrounding the search engine was literally exploding. At that point, the decision was made to monetize. The company began offering advertising tailored to the user’s search results. In 2000, advertising was displayed directly alongside the search results. For example, someone doing a web search about automobile breakdowns would end up seeing ads from car manufacturers. Today, that might seem a bit obvious, but 20 years ago, it was a brand-new idea that, in addition to being extremely efficient, brought in vast amounts of revenue.
The “tailored advertising” concept enabled Google to carve out a massively dominant position in this sector. From 2001 to 2017, the company’s advertising revenues grew more than a thousandfold, soaring from $70 million to $95 billion.
“I think that part of our job is to either create new things or buy them up at the outset,” said Larry Page during one interview. “We have to watch how we invest our resources and we must continue to grow.”
The company had no intentions of stopping its expansion and still had a few tricks up its sleeve during its rise to the top. By promoting new efficient services such as Google Maps and Google Chrome, the company maintained its technological advantage while crushing the competition. The launch of Gmail in 2004 upended things for Hotmail and Caramail as well, particularly since Google’s email service offered more storage than its competitors did.
As it continued to launch new services, the company pinned its hopes on acquiring a start-up (Android) with a promising future; this was back in 2005. We all know what happened next: Android’s operating system ended up being installed on over 85% of cellphones on the face of the planet. Topping things off, in 2006, Google shelled out $1.65 billion for YouTube, the online video platform that is #1 in the world today.
Revving up its search engine while making forays into the home automation and healthcare sectors, Google became so huge that it eventually felt the need to restructure. In 2015, Alphabet came into being. As a result, Google is now a subsidiary handling the parent company’s most profitable services (Chrome, YouTube, Search, Maps, Android) while other Alphabet divisions are involved in research (biotechnology and Google X).
To recap, 20 years ago Google started out with a shoestring budget and lots of goodwill, only to become a gigantic multinational permeating all facets of our daily lives. Although it is still seen in a positive light, some of the company’s actions have begun to raise concerns.
Take personal data protection, for example. In 2017, Google collected location data from Android users without their knowledge, drawing critics’ ire. In another controversial development, the tech giant worked with the Pentagon, which wanted to use AI tools for its drone program. In addition, Google made a few tweaks to meet Beijing’s censorship requirements with a view to relaunching its search engine in China after an eight-year absence (this certainly got the human rights activists up in arms). Not to mention the billions of euros transferred to Bermuda in 2016 as a tax-avoidance measure…
The company, which once demonstrated rock-solid unity, is now dealing with outbreaks of internal criticism. Employees have been making public statements acknowledging that Google may indeed have lost sight of its core values, blinded by money and power.
Even though Google’s 20-year history includes a few noteworthy failures, such as Google Glass or Google+, which never did quite click with social network users, the company for the most part emerged unscathed. This no doubt stems from the fact that it has a near-total monopoly on certain digital sectors. Seven of the company’s service lines have over one billion users each month. Buoyed by this huge clientele, the King of the Web boasted annual revenues in excess of $110 billion in 2017 with a 21% growth rate.
This money is reinvested in projects and takeovers designed to maintain the company’s powerful grip on the digital sectors, including robotics and transhumanism (a set of techniques aimed at improving humans’ physical and mental capacities). Some of these projects appear to have stepped right out of a sci-fi film: “One day Google will be inserted into people’s brains. You’ll receive an implant and when you ask a question, you’ll automatically receive the answer,” said Larry Page in an interview. Co-founder Sergey Brin offered these thoughts: “We want Google to be the third half of your brain.” Sound scary? It does a little—maybe even a lot! And in this sobering regard, there’s no Google tool available to offer us reassurance…