July 19th, 2011
“The advent of Google marks off two very distinct periods in Internet history. The optimists remember the age before Google as chaotic, inefficient, and disorganized. Most search engines at the time had poor ethics (some made money by misrepresenting ads as search results) and terrible algorithms (some could not even find their parent companies online). All of that changed when two Stanford graduate students invented an ingenious way to rank Web pages based on how many other pages link to them.” — Don’t Be Evil, The New Republic
If you are under 30, you may not recall a time when Yahoo! was as central to the online experience as Google is now. In 1998, when the search provider was nearing its zenith, I had a realization: I no longer thought of Yahoo! as a “website”, but rather as the Internet itself. I felt as if you could peel back any page available on the net and find Yahoo! beneath it, as though it were the canvas on which the entire web were painted.
Now, of course, I feel that way about Google. And I distinctly remember the day when my allegiance shifted. It was 1999, I was a programmer at Amazon.com, and one of my colleagues, a young guy fresh out of school with a degree in CS, was showing me this new search engine that everyone in his class swore by. He punched in a few words and clicked [Google Search] to illustrate. The moment the results came back I knew I would never use Yahoo! again.
Why? Was it because of Google’s “ingenious way to rank Web pages based on how many other pages link to them”? No, of course not–I was nowhere near savvy enough to pick up on something like that. It was for a much simpler and fundamental reason: Google took your search terms and only returned pages that had all of them, whereas Yahoo!, by default, returned pages that contained any of them. Put another way, Google joined all your words with “and”s where Yahoo! used “or”s. Tired of punching “board games” into Yahoo! and getting lumber companies, I set Google as my home page that same day.
Google’s rapid adoption in the late 90s owes a lot to its web page ranking system, no doubt. But the founders should also get credit for recognizing the fundamental shift in what searchers wanted: fewer results, not more. Where Yahoo! continued to boast about the sheer volume of websites that they would hurl at you, Google, simply by using a different conjunction, was delivering more specific and relevant information at a time when that was desperately sought.
It’s small and simple ideas like this that can make you the most powerful company in the world.
Here are three more recent articles about Google:
- The Beginning, The Wall Street Journal
- The extended mind – how Google affects our memories, Discover Magazine
- What Google’s Famous Cafeterias Can Teach Us About Health, The Atlantic