Industries in Depth

Google: from the garage to the moon

Andrew Wright
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A few years ago, Google temporarily made available for public search a web archive from back in 2001. It showed how much has changed. The word YouTube didn’t exist: a search for it “did not match any documents”. The top result for gmail was about a “linux email client for the Gnome desktop”.

A search for “search engine”, meanwhile, was a reminder that Google had yet to dominate the field it started out in: the top results were Excite, Lycos, Yahoo and Altavista. At that point Google was handling 70 million searches a day; today, the figure is more than 3.5 billion.

This was shortly before Google was named a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer, in 2002 – just three years after it had outgrown the garage in which Larry Page and Sergey Brin famously started out. Back then, Google was far from being the behemoth of today. It had only just launched image search. Products that today are part of the fabric of daily life were still years away: Calendar came along in 2006, StreetView in 2007 and Chrome in 2008.

Arguably the most important step in Google’s history – given its role in subsequently funding the company’s other ventures – also dates from 2002. It was then that Google launched the concept of cost-per-click pricing for AdWords. The AdSense platform would follow a year after that.

By last year, Google was bringing in over $50 billion in advertising revenue, which comprised more than 90% of its total earnings. It earns more from adverts in the United States than the country’s entire magazine and newspaper industry. These remarkable sums have allowed it to plough resources into developing ideas as diverse as Google Glass and the self-driving car.

The trajectory towards advertising-funded diversification was far from clear when the company won its Technology Pioneer award. Until then, Google’s main source of income had been licensing its search software to the “portals” which then dominated people’s web experience, providing services such as email and business directories.

Indeed, in an interview with CNET in 2001, Google’s then vice president of business development was able to downplay speculation about the company’s ambitions to expand its range of offerings: “The fact is that we have 130 customers that we power search for. They don’t feel we’re competing with them, and we’re comfortable with that model. I use my favourite portals for sending emails, instant messaging, tracking stock portfolios – all these things Google isn’t doing.”

Google may now be doing all these things and more, but the ethos of disdain for competition has endured. As CEO Larry Page told Wired in 2013, “it’s hard to find actual examples of really amazing things that happened solely due to competition. How exciting is it to come to work if the best you can do is trounce some other company that does roughly the same thing?”

Hence the company’s “moon shot” department, Google X, with its projects such as balloon-powered internetglucose-measuring contact lensesartificial intelligence and decoding human health.

If all of this sounds a far cry from the search engine that defined Google when it became a Tech Pioneer, it may not be. Page is reported to have mused that the “perfect search engine” would “understand everything in the world deeply” and “understand whatever your need is”. Google appears to be well on the way to creating it.

Author: Andrew Wright is a writer working for the World Economic Forum. The 2015 list of Technology Pioneers will be announced on Tuesday, 26 August.

Image: The Google logo is spelled out in heliostats (mirrors that track the sun and reflect the sunlight onto a central receiving point) in the Mojave Desert near the California-Nevada border, February 13, 2014. REUTERS/Steve Marcus

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Industries in DepthFourth Industrial RevolutionFinancial and Monetary Systems
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