Technology changes fast, but few products, services or companies have swept into an existing market and refashioned them in their own image as quickly and completely as Google.
In 1998, Google wandered into a busy room full of Internet know-it-all search engines. A few of them — like Northern Lights, Alta Vista, and Yahoo — were recognized leaders. Each one had its own approach to indexing the rapidly expanding web with browse trees and spiders. And each one had millions of devoted users. Without these engines, most of us had no idea how to find anything on the World Wide Web (as we often called it back then).
Without Google, I don’t think we ever would’ve truly understood the enormous power and potential of data.
Within a year, Google was recognized as one of the internet’s best websites. It was lauded for its uncanny ability to find relevant results. In 1999, two years after Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded the company, PC Magazine deemed it “destined to succeed.”
By year five, Google was a verb, as I noted when I wrote “I Search, Therefore I Google.” All those search engines had either cleared out of that crowded room, or started for the exit, leaving Google essentially alone. Yes, Microsoft (once rumored to be interested in acquiring the then-young company) built Bing, a rare search startup that has carved out a remarkable 24% of the U.S. search market. Still, for the better part of a decade. Google systematically steamrolled over all existing search options until it was almost impossible to imagine conducting a search without it.
But this is a story we all know. I’m more interested in everything else we’ve learned from Google’s remarkable rise.
The Unlimited Power of Data
Without Google, I don’t think we ever would’ve truly understood the enormous power and potential of data. While other search engines understood the Internet’s hundreds of millions of pages of information, Google saw another dimension.
From the beginning, Google was as concerned with the contents of each page as it was with those pages’ relationships to each other. It understood that the text index of information of a web page was a flat representation of the information and meaning contained within it. Google looked into how each page was built and made inferences based on a page’s formatting. For example, if a web developer put something higher on a page, that meant the information was more important (and should be prioritized over information lower on the page). Google also used headline size, often set though HTML H1, H2, or H3 settings, to indicate relative importance as well.
External links also added a critical dimension to Google’s page data. Google built its “PageRank” algorithm, which analyzes links to every web page in order to determine a given page’s reputation. More links to your page meant, in Google’s eyes, higher relevance.
The way we look at data now is due in part to how Google perceived the web.
Google’s PageRank has had its share of critics. It’s been heartily gamed by everyone who knows how to do search engine optimization. By 2003, there was a site, Google Watch, devoted to tracking Google Search and, often, criticizing how it viewed and was using its growing corpus of online data.
Still, it’s worth remembering that the way all of us look at data now — and even how it informs our growing AI sector — is due in part to how Google perceived the web. Its unique understanding of data is at the core of virtually everything it does.
Eventually, searching the web shifted to the more powerful, context-aware knowledge graph. When I look at it now, this shift is the moment when the algorithm became more important than the data itself.
The Alchemy of the Algorithm
Perhaps applying increasingly powerful algorithms was as much a necessity as a strategy for Google. Its goal — “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” — probably sounded like an excellent idea in 1998, 1999, and even 2000, but I’m sure it seemed daunting within a few years.
In time, Google would stop viewing words on Web pages as discrete words. PageRank and signals had gotten Google far, but the modern Web needed something more. Google began to connect words, and eventually to connect meanings. They started to apply powerful algorithms to those connections. Naturally, early artificial intelligence helped Google understand the meaning of these words and draw real-time correlations.
What other companies do with data now is, in my opinion, heavily influenced by virtually all of Google’s work since its inception. Facebook’s approach to its data in its closed network (which you can still search through Google), owes a debt of gratitude to Google. Think of “people” as entities and all the relationships Facebook infers through data we give to it every day. This isn’t much different than the relationships we create on websites. Google instantly ingests, indexes, and accurately reflects existing relationships based on what its algorithms and AI can glean.
Is It Evil?
In those early days, Google’s need to “not be evil” wasn’t some sort of clairvoyant incantation against an inevitable future. I think Brin and Page wrote that unofficial motto (and eventually removed it) because they didn’t want to be like tech companies that had come before them. Remember, Google’s rise coincided with Microsoft’s anti-trust struggles over Windows and the Internet Explorer web browser. Internet Explorer’s rise was, for years, tied to every single Windows installation. And I don’t think it was just Microsoft. In the late ’90s, most tech companies were seen as imperious. They often left consumers to deal with the frustrations of inscrutable interfaces and abysmal tech support.
I personally know people who won’t use anything with the Google name behind it.
Google didn’t arrive with anyone’s desktop computer. It won the search battle by being better than virtually every other similar product (all free, by the way) on the market. It’s hard to imagine how such a bootstrap approach could ever been considered evil.
But in order to build a leadership position, to grow and maintain it, Google could never turn off the data vacuum. In fact, it had to shift its view from the desktop to all the myriad ways we’d begun to share our data in the years since it launched. This meant Google would soon understand how and what we emailed, the news we cared about and read, how we shopped, where and how we traveled, and even how me managed our homes.
As they’ve done this, our view of Google has shifted. Anything that watches us — even if only through digital algorithms — and uses what it’s learned to drive ad sales, cannot be trusted. I personally know people who won’t use anything with the Google name behind it. (Quitting Google entirely is difficult, but possible.) They are, I think, still in the minority. But that doesn’t mean Google isn’t at risk of becoming or being perceived as Evil.
When Congress hauled Twitter and Facebook before a Senate Committee over the summer to discuss foreign meddling in the 2016 elections, one that touched repeatedly on privacy issues, Google was notably absent. It wasn’t a good look for Google, the grandfather of many of the data practices used by prominent tech companies today.
As Google heads into its third decade, it can’t afford to ignore public perception of its data tracking and consumption policies. Google won by being better than everyone else. As it moves forward, it will want to Google what that means today.