How Long Did It Take for the World to Identify Google as an AltaVista Killer?

By  |  Friday, May 22, 2009 at 6:39 pm

Original Google LogoEarlier 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…

 
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48 Comments For This Post

  1. Dave Zatz Says:

    CAN Google be killed?

  2. Dave Barnes Says:

    Google can be killed.
    Think:
    1. Silver bullets.
    2. Wooden stakes.
    3. US Government “adjustments”.
    4. EU “equality”.

  3. joe Says:

    google is god

  4. Jack Says:

    Just give me a few bombs and a couple tanks of gas. I’ll get ‘er done.

  5. Dorian Thorn Says:

    Just Google “Google”. I theorize it will create a massive space-time paradox and erase all creation as we know it.

    Well, either that, or you’ll get a list of links that refer to Google.

  6. Jay Koch Says:

    Dave Zats asks is Google can be killed, and I agree with Date Barnes that the most likely way it can be killed is through government intervention.

    However, in the long run, things will change and evolve. In the 1970s, the computer business was $30 billion and IBM was $25 billion of it. People said that IBM is not the competition; IBM is the environment. Now, we see IBM ads on TV, but I’m not really sure what they sell.

    I think that Microsoft has probably reached its height because it was driven by Gates’s personality, and he is stepping aside. Somewhere along the line, they’ll make a mistake and someone will replace them. They don’t even have the number 1 browser any more.

    Google may dominate for several years, but like Harry says, we won’t see it’s replacement until it way too late for Google. I wouldn’t get my knickers in a twist worrying about trying to kill Google (especially with bombs). Just wait and watch, and enjoy the benefits that Google gives us in the mean time.

  7. Ryan Says:

    Someone remind me … why do we want something to kill Google? It does everything I need it to do, and I don’t have to pay for it.

    Maybe something better will come along, or maybe Google will just get better and more useful. Either is fine with me.

  8. Tom B Says:

    ” we won’t see it’s replacement until it way too late for Google. ”

    Trends are way slower than one imagines, even in tech. It took about 30 years for an analog color TV standard to be established; about two decades for the bar code to “catch on”. I’ve been watching Apple since the 1980′s, and it should have become obvious in 2000 (OS X successfully launched) even to the stock-trading neophyte that they would overtake MSFT (still no viable OS, even with Win7). Looks like they will do it this year or next.

    I don’t see a Google killer in the landscape yet, and I DO see more growth as newspapers shut down. The big danger is annoying the antitrust people. The big OPPORTUNITY is that Google should actively seek out new business models/ revenue streams. Successful tech “survivors” usually have a couple of strong product lines.

  9. Jay Koch Says:

    Ryan,

    I re-read my post, and it did sound like I would support killing Google. I didn’t mean that. I love Google. I just meant that it won’t last forever, even though it seems unstoppable now.

    It’s been touched on a couple of times in this thread, but we do have to watch out for the anti-trust people. They could go after Google like they did with Microsoft: They’ll be upset because they are giving stuff away FOR FREE! Nobody ever bought Internet Explorer, but the justice department thought they needed to protect the consumer from it, anyway.

    If Google is not careful, a similar thing can happen. Competitors will be upset that they give away so much for free, and will call on the government to split up Google. If that happens, the consumer will suffer.

  10. Tom B Says:

    “They’ll be upset because they are giving stuff away FOR FREE! Nobody ever bought Internet Explorer, but the justice department thought they needed to protect the consumer from it, anyway.”

    MSFT said in an internal memo that giving away IE would “cut off Netscape’s air supply”.
    Intentions matter in the law. Never write an E-mail you wouldn’t want a competitor’s lawyer to see.

  11. adrian Says:

    As I remember it (and everybody lives the history differently), Google just got the keys of the kingdom from Yahoo.

    Somewhere in the 1998/1999 timeframe Yahoo decided that search was not what the users really wanted, they wanted lots of silly services, the weather, email, and of course they wanted a lot of “in your face” ads. So they were so bright to use a third party for their “unimportant” search, and concentrate on what was important.

    They cared so little about search, that they even wrote a sign “powered by google” on every search. Well, millions of us clicked on that sign, and found out that we could get our search results from a clean page, just an entry box and a button. No ads, not weather, no crap. And lets not forget that those where dial-up times, where we had to pay for every minute we stayed on line, and for every ad/silly thing we didn’t wanted.
    Take a look at yahoo page at that time:
    http://web.archive.org/web/19990508070818/http://www3.yahoo.com/
    And then look at Google:
    http://web.archive.org/web/19990508044928/http://www2.google.com/

    Remember, this was dial-up, slow and paid by the minute. Do you still wonder why people switched to Google?

    By the way, it is interesting that 2 of the biggest companies of our time were born because another company gave them their business to concentrate in “what really matters”. IBM gave the OS business to Microsoft (as hardware was where the money was), and Yahoo gave search to Google (as “portals” were where the money was)

  12. Jay Koch Says:

    Tom B,

    Your point is well taken, but I still believe the anti-trust suit against Microsoft was misguided.

    By giving away IE for free, the consumers benefited. It hurt NetScape big time. So, was the Justice Department protecting the consumers or NetScape?

    I don’t use IE any more. I use FireFox. IE became too bloated, slow, and insecure. Microsoft’s arrogance and Mozilla’s nimbleness reduced the marketshare of IE more than NetScape and the Justice Department could. Today, when I look at visitor stats to my web site, 49% use FireFox and about 31% use IE. I don’t even see NetScape on the list.

    NetScape could have taken the path that Mozilla did. They could have been David and used a slingshot and build a better product in spite of the Goliath Microsoft. Instead, they tried to use the courts to fight.

    Nobody ever accused Microsoft of being timid or kind to their competitors. Being tough is not the same as illegal. But, they are also not invincible.

  13. waterpup Says:

    When I worked for AOL I got my dad a computer for his 65th birthday in 1999 and two months later the old man was telling about Google!! As soon as he hem mentioned it I was like “What?!?! Google? Never heard of it” and actually never thought I would again. I mean, I worked for AOL so I knew everything right? LOL!! How could a 65 year old computer newbie have heard about Google at that time? He passed away in 2004, wish I had asked him now.

  14. Torley Says:

    Harry, what a much-needed look into the past — some people take for granted that Google wasn’t always the behemoth it is. Some of these quotes seem so funny in hindsight; I think Von Furstenburg’s foresight should be quoted more widely. Clever indeed.

  15. Sascha Kimmel Says:

    The oldest post on Usenet I found is from June 1998:
    http://groups.google.com/group/comp.infosystems.search/browse_thread/thread/a1c2148b4d19a245/cff4ae5c93ea949?q=%2Bbackrub+search+engine#0cff4ae5c93ea949

    Here is an archived version of Google’s site from December 1997:
    http://web.archive.org/web/19971210065417/http://backrub.stanford.edu/

    On that page you can also read:
    “However, we are anticipating equipment donations from IBM and Intel to help with performance and increase our disk capacity so we can scale to 100 million pages.”

  16. Charles Says:

    I just thought it should be mentioned that Internet Explorer still leads in market share. It’s falling rapidly, but it still leads for the time being.

    Also, I’m not sure what somebody meant earlier by saying that Microsoft has no viable OS, but Microsoft is absolutely slaughtering Apple in regards of market share. Apple has a long way to go before they top Microsoft.

  17. alur Says:

    There is a tradition of not recognizing extraordinary, innovative, and life-changing products, and google really wasn’t overlooked even during its inception. The classic example that I like to remember is

    “But what … is it good for?”
    — Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.

    There are many inventions that find a purpose later, and there are inventions created for a specific purpose. I say never overlook the smallest variation or peculiarity that wavers from the norm. It could be the next great innovation that changes the history of the world (if you think small) or the universe (if you have visions of grandiosity).

  18. RvD Says:

    The reason Google took over so quickly from Yahoo and others was not so much their reliable search results (although they were a pleasant surprise) but the simplicity of their search page.

    Users had gotten thoroughly tired of the ‘portal’ craze, but the web companies hadn’t caught on that fact yet (or didn’t care). Doing a search on Yahoo required you to find the search text box first in a ‘where’s waldo’ puzzle of sub-portals, ads and other clutter.

  19. Phoenix Woman Says:

    I’ll tell you where most web-savvy news junkies first found about Google: Salon.com. On December 21, 1998, they ran a piece by their tech guy, Scott Rosenberg, extolling Google as a search engine that actually works: http://archive.salon.com/21st/rose/1998/12/21straight2.html, around the same time as PC Magazine.

    One of the reasons Google took off was that, in the beginning, it was as simple and easy to use as was the original Napster. It didn’t attempt to be a web portal right from the get-go; that all came much later, and even now you, the user, get to choose how you want to use Google: If you want to get a Gmail ID and be immersed in the Googleverse, fine. If you just want to use it to look up stuff, that’s fine, too. They give you the simple experience first, as well as options for taking it deeper. In a world that increasingly shoves it increasing complexity down our throats, this is very welcome, useful, and comforting.

  20. Earnest Pettie Says:

    I remember Northern Light. It was my search engine of choice because of its ability to refine searches through the use of “folders,” similar to what Clusty does. Then it went pay-only and I had to find a successor. I went from Northern Light to Infoseek to Google.

  21. sitamnesty Says:

    An excellent article, reminding us something people tend to forget : once upon a time, NOT so far from now, there was NOT internet.

  22. jojo Says:

    Google is my brain. Google is your brain. Google is the world’s brain. Google is the universe’s brain. Google is the meaning of life. Google is the Singularity. Google is the One.

  23. Dustin Says:

    Google arguably has the best brand recognition in the world. They aren’t even seen as a company anymore, but as THE place to go when you need to find an answer. Just Google it. It would take something miraculous in web search to peel away all those Google-dedicated eyeballs. And if the new stuff isn’t powerful enough to redefine search as much as Google did, people will just stick to Googling, confident that Google will either buyout the company in question or take their idea and make it better with the Google touch. I feel like a marketer? sheesh

    Google has their tentacles in so much now it’s ridiculous. I’m in the process of trying to get a Smart Meter for our home so we can use Google’s new PowerMeter service (free) to monitor and save electricity. It’s going to be free because Google is partnering with utilities and using their leverage and intelligence to make it that way (we all know nothing would be free if the electric companies ran the show). At least, that’s how I understand the situation :)

    Google knows what makes people happy, and they know we love free. And they know that by giving us free stuff, they are sucking us into their free stuff vortex, where we will be quite cozy and omnipotent.

  24. Gary Says:

    I was trying to remember when I first heard about Google and decided to try it out. I think it was either the Salon article Phoenix Woman refers to, or the Slashdot article that refers to it: http://linux.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=98/12/20/2348230

    (nothing like Christmas holidays to encourage students to experiment with something new).

  25. Yacko Says:

    Google might damage itself the day it plasters visual and audio advertising on its search results pages. Nothing more annoying than having audio self play from a backgrounded tab. I don’t believe text helps Google dominate but at least it doesn’t knock itself down a couple of pegs. Both Google the company and its founders remember that simple text is the most efficient form of communication, easy to speed read, easy to skim and skip ahead. Google has pushed the boundaries with sponsored links and some still pics, but the results are still eminently readable. The day Google steps over that boundary and don’t let you opt out, is the day Google starts falling in favor.

  26. StarCraft 2 News Says:

    Google is a phenomenon. There is no other way to put it, and I often make use of the range of their services. I can’t think of single company that offers as much as Google does FOR FREE.

    However, Google are dominating the web and they way we think about the web. SEO, E-Marketing, and all of those commericalised services are dicated by google.

    Google have gotten to the point it is at today by offering a brilliant product. I am not one to say they are a bad force on the web purely because they are so damn good at what the do.

    Interestingly, Apple is no longer a real competitior to Microsoft. Each operates within a different market. Microsoft, the old stalwart, is now being gunned down by Google.

  27. Tonie Says:

    In the autumn of 1999 I wrote on my own Dutch language blog:
    http://www.tonie.net/index.php?p=archive_1999-w46.html#standard-175
    translated:
    “by far the best search engine on the web I think is Google. No advertisements, no nonsense, just good search results’….

  28. RoasterBoy Says:

    One thing to remember is that the real AltaVista killer was DEC. It didn’t know what to make of it. DEC built AltaVista as a showcase for its iron; the code running behind the scenes was pretty much anything that would keep the thing afloat. DEC hadn’t even bothered to register http://www.altavista.comhttp://news.cnet.com/2100-1023-214326.html. The product wandered around and became this bloated, ad-laden portal that drove users away.
    There’s no question that Google quickly distanced itself from the other good search engines in the late 90s, but Google didn’t kill AltaVista. DEC never understood what it had and never made it ready for the big leagues.

  29. Daniel Barradas Says:

    Ah … But did we have the amount of information in 1998 that we have today to help us make an educated guess?

    In 1998 the web was nothing of what it is today. You had to go and look for news, now they come to you.

    So aren’t we simply victims of the same phenomena that hit the printed press?

    The printed press ‘has’ to come up with news because it needs to sell.

    Aren’t we watching the same online? News appear out of everywhere with great headlines like “product X is the next Google”… And there’s plenty of info around to create those ‘great’ headlines.

    Seen it before in the printed press. It’s just a trend … and it will eventually die.

    The one million dollar question is not ‘who will kill google?’ but ‘what will come next?’

    Just my two cents :)

  30. krishna Says:

    This is really a good work. Quotes along with examples of Google’s History. Wonderful work dude. Worth a tweet article :)

  31. Jason Grant Says:

    There will be NO ‘Google killer’ for a very long time.

    This is because Google is now irreplacable on the web.

    It’s technology is 10 years ahead of everyone else and it’s not just a search engine, but a complete suite of tools, protocols, platforms, most of which are significant oin the web arena.

    Nothing else will easily ‘kill’ Google as the other parties would have to do massive amount of stuff in order to even try to rival it.

    It’s somewhat unfair to talk about ‘killing Google’ also, as Google is a once in a century type company which has achieved arguably more than any other corporation in the history of human kind.

    To conclude: people are always wrong on ‘Google killers’ as nothing will kill Google.

  32. Wayne Yeager Says:

    I found a slightly earlier review of Google in the October ’98 issue of the journal Management Consultancy. See: http://webalytics.com/blog/?p=76

  33. smarterfleet Says:

    Nice article,
    The real problem at least now for google is google it self-what will happen after search;
    The stock option is so high that they need another real revenue stream;
    Android is a good candidate but we will see
    Bogdan

  34. Tim Says:

    Nice article Harry. By the way, if you want to look back on the web to see old archieved material… or just look at the first versions of Google (or others) visit The WayBack Machine which is now located on http://www.archive.org/index.php. Really cool site!

  35. dirk Says:

    google can’t be “killed” or antitrusted. they are global. truly global. there is no hardware invloved and they reqire no payment from the average consumer. google will lead us, as a species, to our next evolutional leap. mark my words.

  36. Crossing Arbogast Says:

    Hi,
    I don’t normally comment on blogs but your post was a real call to action. Thank you for a great read, I will be sure to bookmark your site and check in now and again.

    Regards,
    William.

  37. Simon Says:

    Google is great…

  38. Brian B Says:

    Anybody else creeped out by the glassy eyed, true believer posts?
    My irony detector hasn’t budged so I suspect they mean it.

  39. ottnott Says:

    Ryan (May 23, 8:44am)pointed the way to the Google killer when he wrote:
    “Someone remind me … why do we want something to kill Google? It does everything I need it to do, and I don’t have to pay for it.”

    Assuming that Google isn’t replaced by something that does what we need and pays US for it, Google may be killed by becoming less useful.

    How would that happen? The same way so many other things (email, Ebay, etc.) have been made less useful – the spammers and scammers.

    The spammers and scammers already litter the back pages of Google results on many searches I’ve done. When they figure out how to game the system enough that the front pages will start to be populated with junk, Google will be in trouble.

    Google has the advantage of tremendous resources, but also the disadvantage of having to try to keep a massive system running and useful while adapting to the ever-changing attacks of those gaming the rankings system.

  40. Jay Says:

    What will kill Google is not something that gives you useful information or other tools for free, but one that actually PAYS you to use it.

    Imagine if every time you used Google they put 20% of the revenue that your usage generates into an account for you.

    They would STILL be making 20 cents on the dollar after taxes for every dollar of revenue they bring in.

  41. Nickky Says:

    An excellent article, reminding us something people tend to forget : once upon a time, NOT so far from now, there was NOT internet.

  42. Sandy Allain Says:

    I am pretty sure when the next big thing after Google explodes into the scene, every seo expert will take a hit as they would need to spend time and possibly money to research how to best exploit the new system again. So keep your eyes open folks, you never know when it is going to happen!

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    [...] right that the whole idea is sort of pointless. As I wrote back in this piece, killers are exceedingly rare–and it seems like even the smartest tech watchers aren’t [...]

  12. 2009 Cleanup « Joel's Scattered Thoughts Says:

    [...] How Long Did It Take for the World to Identify Google as an AltaVista Killer? from Technologizer [...]

  13. aimClear’s 2009 Daily Training Link Library » aimClear Search Marketing Blog Says:

    [...] http://technologizer.com/2009/05/22/how-long-did-it-take-for-the-world-to-identify-google-as-an-alta… [...]

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