By Harry McCracken | Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 9:37 am
Ten years ago today, Google’s filing for incorporation as a business was accepted. It’s far from the only date one might choose to mark the company’s tenth birthday–and as I write this, I don’t see any celebrating going on at Google’s home page or corporate blog–but many Googlewatchers are doing their ruminating on Ten Years of Google right now. (I’ve already done some myself in my posts on bizarro Google offshoots and the company’s 1998 homepage.)
The first thought that jumped into my head when I pondered the anniversary was this: It’s only been that long? Google has become so core to how I live my life that I forget that I managed to spend thirty-four years without it–including twenty years of being online in one form or another. There just aren’t that many commercial products or services that have become anywhere near so pervasive. (Coca-Cola? McDonald’s? The Gillette safety razor?)
Once I started to think about life before Google, I began to toy with the idea of life without Google. What if the world had gotten to 2008 without the company ever being formed? (Maybe Sergey Brin and Larry Page had never been born; maybe they became Stanford professors; maybe they became fabulously successful at some other endeavor–I dunno.) Just how different would life–or at least life on the Internet–be?
A few thoughts, category by category:
McCracken’s Eleventh Law of Technology Innovation famously states that anything that’s ever been invented would have been eventually invented even if the person or persons who invented it had never been born. If Thomas Edison hadn’t come up with the light bulb and phonograph, for instance, we wouldn’t be without ’em in 2008–somebody else would have invented in due time.
And as revolutionary as Google’s PageRank algorithm was when it debuted, it was, in retrospect, an obvious idea: A Web site that has lots of links from other sites is more likely to be good, and should therefore rank higher in search results. I can’t imagine that this notion would have simply never existed if Brin and Page hadn’t originated it in the form of BackRub, Google’s predecessor. Someone else would have come up with it, and would likely have blown away AltaVista and other early search engines in accuracy, just as Google did.
Google’s original home page was almost as revolutionary as PageRank, simply because it was…simple. Not much more than a logo, a text field, a Search button, and and I’m Feeling Lucky one. It was a major part of why Google took off originally, and while nearly every major search engine ended up shamlessly copying it,
I think it’s possible that nobody else would have been daring enough to try it.
Once Google had been successful with Web search, it was obsessive about building everything it did around search: If there’s a Google product or service in which a search field is not core to the functionality and prominent in the user interface, I’m not thinking of it now. Countless other companies have bought into the notion that search is the Internet’s defining tool; nobody else has riffed on the idea as effectively as Google.
So the bottom line on Web search is this: If Google hadn’t existed, we surely wouldn’t have gotten something exactly like Google in its place. And maybe not something as good. But search would surely have evolved just as radically, maybe as far, and probably in the same general direction.
Google is the only technology company with a mission that I can repeat off the top of my head: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. That doesn’t mention advertising, and it’s probably a safe bet that Sergey Brin and Larry Page would hope that they’re not remembered primarily as advertising men. But Google did revolutionize advertising. And the billions of dollars Google has made from advertising are what has funded virtually everything else they’ve done: If Google Web search was just as good as it is today but didn’t carry such effective, profitable ads, Google would never have become the Google we know.
Google didn’t invent the idea of auctioning off ads that appeared with a search engine’s results. A company called GoTo.com was doing the same thing years before Google started, albeit not as elegantly and with more controversy. If Google had never come to be, other search engines would likely be doing it today. And I think there’s a good chance that the democratizing effect of the company’s approach to advertising, which lets companies of all sizes get in front of everybody who uses the Internet, would have happened.
But Google’s approach to text ads was more user-friendly than GoTo’s–the ads appeared alongside organize search results, rather than displacing them–and used more sophisticated plumbing. And it was paired with what would have been the best search engine with or without advertising. That was incredibly potent, and it’s not clear that another company would have figured it out. Yahoo, after all, ended up buying GoTo.com, but has never monetized its search engine nearly as effectively as Google has, which is why it winded up agreeing to outsource some of its advertising sales to Google.
Microsoft has also consistently failed to match Google’s potency as an ad platform, even though the basics of how Google does what it does are entirely public and available for imitation or refinement. You gotta think that if nobody can figure out how to top Google’s approach to ads, it might be that nobody would have come up with it in the first place.
Oh yeah, one other thing about Google and advertising: The company only figured out the ad part of its business after it had created a superb, wildly popular search engine. It certainly didn’t originate the idea of “getting big fast” on the Internet–many companies from the first dot-com boom also postponed worrying about revenue until after they’d built a service and gotten lots of people to sign up for it. But nearly all of those first generation Web companies should have worried about money; by not doing so, they turned from dot-coms into dot-bombs. Google re-legitimized the idea of figuring out a business model late in the game, and countless companies have copied it since…although none have done so with the same degree of success.
Google is ten; Gmail is only a bit over four. And when Google announced on April 1st, 2004 that it was giving users a gigabyte of storage, many took it as a hoax. (Looking back at the original Gmail press release, Google wanted folks to wonder if it was a practical joke.) At the time, Microsoft’s Hotmail offered a parsimonious 2MB of space; how often does anyone top what a competitor is doing by a factor of 500X?
Disk storage has gotten so cheap that large inboxes would have come along with or without Google. I think it’s possible, though, that they wouldn’t have gotten as big as quickly–and Google’s current 7GB allotment still tops Hotmail. (Yahoo, on the other hand, now claims to offer unlimited space–something it might never have been prompted to do if Gmail didn’t exist.)
Gmail was a landmark in another way: It scanned your e-mail and displayed relevant ads. At first, many people found this creepy and some even said it should be illegal. In the long run, though, almost nobody seemed to find it objectionable in practice, in part because Gmail was so basically useful, and in part because Google was entirely open about what it was doing. It’s easy to imagine other companies who might have done something similar backing down during the initial firestorm–I’m thinking of Facebook and its Beacon ads. But Google weathered the controversy and changed how people think about use of their personal information. (One Google trait that isn’t often discussed is its extreme stubborness: When it wants to do something, it really wants to do it…and probably will.)
Oh, and Gmail’s emphasis on powerful search was a fresh idea in 2004; today, you assume that every Web service will have decent search. Woulda happened with or without Google; might not have happened as fast without the tendency of every other company on the Web to steal Google’s good idea.
Ultimately, Gmail didn’t change everything for e-mail, and some of the things it did change would have happened with or without Google. But the change likely happened faster than it would have otherwise.