By Harry McCracken | Friday, May 22, 2009 at 6:39 pm
Earlier this week, I mused about the fact that folks keep identifying new Web services as Google killers, and keep being dead wrong. Which got me to wondering: How quickly did the world realize that Google would come to dominate Web search in a way that few businesses have ever been dominated? Did anyone know from the get go that it would whip AltaVista and other once-mighty sites?
It’s still surprisingly hard to search the Web for information from a particular time period. But I found some early references to Google–mostly positive, and none of which were prescient enough to realize its implications.
I’m not positive when Google was first live on the Web at large rather than just at Stanford University, but the earliest mention of it I stumbled across was this praise in a USENET group from November 28th, 1998. Everything it says about the search engine remains true to this day:
I just found GOOGLE, located at http://google.stanford.edu
And found it pretty darned reliable.
Type in a topic and click “I’m Feeling Lucky” and have found it turns up the
most likely site most of the time.
I don’t believe you have to register with the site, and it caches pages.
In December 1998, PC Magazine was forward-looking enough to say nice things about Google and name it as one of the top 100 sites, although it regarded it as an experiment, not as one of life’s necessities:
Here’s your chance to search the Web and participate in high-level academic research at the same time. Google! is a Stanford University project designed to find the most relevant Web pages (those with the most inbound links) and run searches against them. The 25 million pages currently catalogued seem to be good choices; the site has an uncanny knack for returning extremely relevant results. There’s much more to come at Google!, but even in its prototype form it’s a great search engine.
(PC Mag’s acknowledgement of Google’s excellence came so early that it gave its URL as google.stanford.edu–an address that still works, although it no longer points to Google itself.)
In June of 1999, a Cnet story on Web startups dwelled on a search company called Direct Hit, then mentioned Google briefly and dispassionately:
Another start-up working on improved search results is Google. Google’s technology resembles citation analysis, which ranks the importance of documents by how many times they are cited. Google ranks search results based on how many sites link to them.
Google, founded last year by Stanford University computer science graduates Sergey Brin and Larry Page, is named for the word “googol,” which means 10 to the 100th power.
In July of 1999, the Boston Globe reported on a study of various search engines (story behind paywall) which called Northern Light (remember them? no?) the most comprehensive one, and which treated Google as an also-ran:
Next after Northern Light were Snap and AltaVista, which covered 15.5 percent of the Web. HotBot covered 11.3 percent; Microsoft, 8.5 percent; Infoseek, 8 percent; Google, 7.8 percent; Yahoo, 7.4 percent; Excite, 5.6 percent; Lycos, 2.5 percent, and Euroseek, 2.2 percent.
In August, the San Francisco Chronicle mentioned Google in a roundup of interesting search-related companies, but thought its cofounder was named Sergey Vrin:
“There are a number of other companies like Excite and Infoseek and they have search components, but primarily, they are media companies,” said Vrin. Google is a no- frills search engine that aims to do one thing well.
Curiously enough, the first mention of Google in the New York Times seems to have occurred when designer Diane Von Furstenburg raved about it in September 1999:
It’s not officially out, but this is simply a great search engine. It’s quick. It’s fun to use. I want to check on a movie, read about an actor, find out who directed a particular film, this is where I look. It is very clever.
Also in September, BusinessWeek published a piece that praised Google but was also careful to adopt a skeptical approach about the notion that you could make a lot of money by focusing on search and selling ads:
But at a time when other popular search sites such as Yahoo!, Excite, and Lycos have all morphed into diversified entertainment portals, is there really a future for a pure, advertising-supported search tool?
In November, Sergey Brin participated in an online chat at the Washington Post’s site, and was asked how Google intended to make money through focusing on search:
Leslie Walker: How does Google plan to make money? Unlike the other big search engines-most of which added a bevy of services and have become mini-AOLs rather than search services-your Web site has little more than a search box.
So where will your revenue come from?
Sergey Brin: Leslie, have you visited our online t-shirt store?
More seriously, we currently make money from cobranding with partners like Netscape and RedHat. We also recently launched our ad program which is quite differentiated.
By December, the search engine had made TIME magazine’s list of the top tech of the year, which is probably as good a benchmark of mainstream success as any:
GOOGLE.COM With sites such as Yahoo, Infoseek and Excite constantly beefing themselves up into the online equivalent of mega-malls, it’s refreshing to find a search engine that does nothing but search. And search well. Google’s award-winning, commonsense approach nearly always seems to come up with exactly what you’re looking for.
Another December piece, in Britain’s The Independent, praised the Google home page for its simplicity:
The first thing that strikes visitors to Google’s native home page is its simplicity; all it offers is a field to enter a search term, and a couple of buttons. Google provides no news, weather, stock quotes, horoscopes or free e-mail.
Even in May, 2000, Google was still humble enough that a fanciful Slate piece could mock its name as sounding dopey–and no, I don’t think the dismissive tone here was meant to be completely ironic:
A neighbor came over to complain about me cutting down trees in my yard and happened to see a Furboy in action. He was an associate in marketing at “Have you read our latest Polese release?” Marimba and was hoping to become the VP of marketing at google.com, another stupid-named company, and was meeting VCs, so to impress them he mentioned what he saw at my house (can you believe VCs actually have spies?).
Any lessons here? People are smart enough to recognize good stuff when they see it. But they’re not able to predict the unpredictable–and as good as Google was in 1998 and 1999, it A) wasn’t as good as it would later become; and B) hadn’t figured out how to turn high-quality search results into billions of dollars in advertising revenue.
A Google killer may well be out there even as we speak. We may even be saying nice things about it. But it would amaze me if we’ve figured out yet that it’s going to kill Google…