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Google at 10: Larry, Sergey & Me

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It is not clear how old Google is – some argue that world’s largest search engine operator is 13 – after all it operated in stealth for about 3 years before launching in September 1998. Many major news organizations are going with September 2008 as the tenth anniversary so I am going to play along. even asked the question, Has Google Changed The World? from many well known people. For some odd reason they decided to seek my thoughts.

Gandhi changed the world. The steam engine changed the world. Heart transplants changed the world. The Internet changed the world. Google simply made a small (albeit important) contribution toward making Internet a better experience for all of us.

Google’s (s GOOG) contributions are still worthy of praise. It is no longer impossible to find relevant information on the fast-growing Internet. I remember tearing my hair out looking for relevant information. Today it is as simple as acting on our impulse to seek that knowledge–and that has infinitely changed the way we interact with the machines.

The article triggered a chain reaction and a trip down the memory lane. I had been a Google-addict for a while and loved its simple elegance over rivals such as AltaVista and Inktomi-powered searches. I had talked to the company earlier, but I didn’t meet the Stanford duo in person up until September 1999. The company had just raised about $25 million in venture money.

“I have never paid more money for so little a stake in a startup,” John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers was heard saying. Good thing he did – for he paid next to nothing for what could arguably be the Internet-equivalent of Alaskan oil and gas fields.

Larry Page & Sergey Brin had stopped by at the offices and we talked at length about the company. It ultimately resulted in this feature, How Google Is That? Larry still had the same disastrous haircut he supports today. Brin was measured and logical as always in his responses. They thankfully made no meaningless and “do-no-evil” hypocritical statements. They were just two guys out to change the world. I remember getting along with them famously, but never saw or talked to them since, though I have been to many Google press events.

Then & Now: You’ve come a long way baby

The company was 12-months old. They had just come up with their version of contextual-text advertisng system. They had 40 employees, were looking for an inhouse chef, and were doing about 4 million page views a day and about 4 million searches a day. That’s 45 searches per second. No one in the company owned a glider, though their venture backers had their own private planes. The company was housed in 165 University Avenue in Palo Alto and the co-founders were single.

In July 2008, Google registered 7.23 billion searches – about 242 million a day. That works out to about 4 10 million searches in an hour or over 1100 2772 searches per second. (Funny, it turned out to be much bigger than the market estimates used by Google.) It had sales of $5.4 billion in the second quarter of 2008 alone. It now employs over 19,000 people. Larry and Sergey are billionaires and own a Boeing 767 & a Boeing 757. They are both married. The company has offices in multiple locations and data centers that are sprinkled around the globe.

After meeting with them and discussing the merits of search-only approach versus portals, I came to this conclusion: “Perhaps the other Stanford duo, Yahoo! cofounders David Filo and Jerry Yang, should be a little concerned–their media ambitions have superseded their customers’ desire for a really smart search engine.” In hindsight, I am surprised I was able to get away with making that statement and my editor didn’t catch what clearly was an opinion – a no-no in the non-blog mediascape. After all, it seemed so stupid to suggest that because Yahoo (s YHOO) had 240 million page views a day and was literally printing money.

Brin tried to convince me that the text-based contextual advertising (first popularized by LinkExchange, a company that was bought by Microsoft) was their way of making money. “Banners are not working and clickthrough rates are falling, I think highly focused ads are the answer,” Brin said, and pointed out that Google would be in black in 24 months. By 2001, I could have kicked myself for doubting the kid!

Why did they win?

Fast forward 9 years, and most of Google’s competitors have gone to the great technology graveyard, nary a tombstone., Dogpile, Direct Hit and Northern Light were all part of the new search engines that were taking on the incumbents like Yahoo, Lycos and HotBot and wanted to make web searches simpler and more accurate.

“Google is essentially trying to categorize and catalog the web. We have a very different product and a different approach,” Jeffrey Stibel, cofounder and CEO of then Providence, R.I.-based told me for the story. He was taking a more exotic linguistic approach to search. It is now owned by Valueclick, an ad-network.

In comparison, Google’s analysis of the link structure of the World Wide Web and large-scale data mining and ability to ranks a page against similar pages turned out to be the right approach. Was it just the algorithm and a better monetization scheme? Was it a right solution at the right time? I think it was a bit of all that – but most importantly, it was a farsighted approach to infrastructure and the network.

It’s the infrastructure stupid.

This was the critical difference – I wrote about it recently – between winning and losing. I was reminded of this by an old PowerPoint presentation. They talked about using commodity compute infrastructure to out muscle everyone and doing analysis of the web like it has never been done before. It seems so obvious today – but back then it was an idea ahead of its time. The impact of pizza box servers was yet to be seen, and companies like Cobalt Networks (sold to Sun Microsystems for $1 2.4 billion) were selling early versions of Linux-powered thin servers, but they were not cheap by any means.

Many on Wall Street question why Google spends so much money on infrastructure. The question is why not – after all every millisecond of performance means more searches and more searches mean more advertising. More infrastructure means more crawling, more indexing and better results. I think that slide reminds us of the fact that infrastructure-as-an-advantage is in the DNA of Google. And that is unlikely to change – and that is why world’s smartest engineers and computer scientists still want to work there. [digg=]

History has made a genius out of all who bet on Larry and Sergey – the investors, the employees, journalists who were enthralled by their story. In reality to those who built Google, it was the only option.

Tomorrow: What You, Me & Corporations Can Learn From Google

42 Responses to “Google at 10: Larry, Sergey & Me”

  1. I just remember how much better Google was at searching when I first started using it, which was probably around 1998. I had always used AltaVista way back then and the search results on Google were just so much more focused on what I wanted than AltaVista. I was an instant convert and so rarely went back to AV that within weeks never used it again. Though I’ve tried several search engines since then it takes a lot more to convince me to use something else permanently. I’ve yet to find any search engine that delivers results as good or as comprehensive. Google’s data set is so huge now it’s very very hard for competitors to come in and beat it. And Google has also stayed simple where most of its current competitor crop has slapped on a lot of candy rather than algorithmic innovation.

  2. Om, great post, really enjoyed reading it. Also, maybe even more important, thanks for being an inspiration for health & fitness to so many of us in the web/tech community.

    Related to Google at 10, I had a chance to conduct a one-on-one interview with Marissa last year, and in honor of Google’s 10th birthday, I’m publishing excerpts on my blog this week. Here are a few:

    How Google evaluates and screens new ideas and products:

    Google at 10: More from my 1:1 interview with Marissa Mayer:

  3. 242 million searches a day does not equal around 4 million per hour, it equals around 10 million searches per hour or over 2750 searches per second. You should update the numbers.

  4. Om — this editor let your opinions ride in your stories back in those good old days at because it was your opinions that made you the best read reporter on the staff.

    I’m just annoyed you didn’t introduced me to Brin and Page when they were in the newsroom.

  5. I can’t agree with the author of this article that Google didn’t change the world. At least in a way that steam engine or Internet did. Humanitarian changes are in a different dimension.

    Those two dramatically accelerated the speed of life: we can reach much more places and much more people because of invention of engine and the Internet.

    One can cover just this many square miles of the Earth walking or using a horse or a sail ship. You can cover thousands time more by using an engine.

    One can communicate just with this many people via newspapers or radio. You can reach out to thousands more people over the Internet.

    I insist that Google changed the world in a similar way: it allowed one to find thousands time more information than by using portals or folders. Folders and bookmarks were initial ways of organizing information. It accelerates the search, but only dozens of times. Portal was the next step when one still has to go from a single entry point through multiple “folders” to reach whatever one is searching for. Both those ways of accessing the information also require consumer to put significant effort in organizing information in a way that would make access faster. But you can’t make it faster for everybody since people have different ways of looking for information.

    And that’s why I think that Google revolutionized the world. It used an approach that doesn’t require consumer to spend any effort on organizing the data while allowing everybody quick access to it. And everybody can find thousands time more information than by using older access methods.

  6. Total sidebar, but actually Sun paid about $2B for Cobalt


    that they pretty much ate in a write off a while later (see editor’s note concerning $2.38b write-off in this interview with McNealy)

    Talk about a lost opportunity. Of course Cobalt’s competitor, Whistle Communications, suffered somewhat the same fate after their acquisition by IBM, but in that case I believe the loss was more in the range of $60-70m (I’m not sure of the exact number but I knew a few folks who worked there and that’s what I recall from the time).

  7. Bottom line:
    Information is data in Context.
    Context is organized data.

    So if you use link analysis you are building around the organization of data done by people. Or the hard part. The benefit is that you will get a better index of related data, hence Google was better then Alta Vista with just indexed words.

    The infrastructure picture was and still is well know for everybody working on something best described as:
    Goal oriented none numerical lock free massive parallel system

    While Google has worked on the parallel part, it misses out on the rest. Which might be a problem in the future. Since the rest describes actually how any brain organizes and prioritizes data.

  8. Add to that…I’m not sure..why Microsoft & Google is not giving back to the country which has given them all but rather giving all the money to Africa and Malaria :0)

    It is all Good to give money to charity, but forgetting the place from where they all come from is equally bad…I think America and American people deserve much more than what they get from big companies in the form of charity….

    yeah..Google is coming up with venture fund..but why wait…it should have come up couple of years ago..

    Gates…mentions about the bad state of education in America….why not built world class schools and hike the pay of teachers from his charity fund..

    I think 70% of Google and Microsoft money should be invested back into America for achieving American dream and making 100 more Google and Microsoft…Then whole world will be like an American dream…One should invest money in Good minds and that less fortunates can be sucked into the big pond of good guys and places..

    (again im not an American…Its my views from asia)

  9. I think we are missing one point here…It is also the greatness of America, that encourages free entrepreneurial spirit of the young minds…Its the whole culture in America…I’m not sure…If someone jogging early in the morning would meet Larry & Sergey on the way and after hearing them out, take them home and give them a 100 thousand check…before even Larry and Sergey having a company name….yeah Andy Bech. did that

    Google would not have born anywhere but in America…..In other countries…All investors have first shown doubts and would have said…..Internet has 100’s of search engines and even meta search engines like Copernic….why would Google be any different..

    Its the great American spirit and culture that makes things happen…there will be million more Google’s to come from America.

    We all seek an opportunity and a break to show our talent..And America gives that…

    (btw im not american im from asia)

  10. Raghu Kulkarni

    Terrific story.

    What made Google so powerful is also because of mis-steps by Yahoo and Microsoft. While Yahoo made the intitial mistakes of trying to become a media company from a search company, they did not try to correct themselves later on when they still had a chance. And Microsoft,so good at copying others ideas, simply ignored the search business until it was too late.

  11. *sniff* This post brings back so many good memories. I worked at Cobalt Networks and was there when we IPO’d. Cobalt was by FAR the best company I have ever worked for — a passionate team of people building a great product that was way ahead of its time.

    If Cobalt had remained independent or had been acquired by a company that actually understood our technology, I firmly believe Cobalt would be the leader in server control panels, which are hugely popular (and profitable) in the web hosting industry. Alas, it was not to be, and the technology died on the vine.

    Cloud computing is interesting and gets more media attention, but control panel companies are quietly minting cash in the background.