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Google, the little start-up that grew up

Text by Lorena GALLIOT

Latest update : 2008-11-10

From a tiny search engine to the massive company now present in most new tech sectors, Google’s success story is for many reasons. A history of this unique phenomenon.

Last September, the ubiquitous search engine Google celebrated its 10th birthday. To mark the occasion, the six coloured letters of homepage logo were accompanied by a cake and some confetti. Nothing more - a birthday without a song and dance.


But the route that this small start-up took to become a Web giant within a decade is everything but ordinary. “What started as a simple search engine became a multinational offering online services of all sorts to ordinary users as well as professionals”, says Jonathan Briggs, professor of e-commerce at the University of Kingston, London, in an interview with FRANCE 24.


In 2008, the company offered its search engine in 43 languages, going from Norwegian to Chinese by way of Byelorussian. The site indexes about one trillion web pages and two billion images. It lists thousands of extracts of university works in Google Scholar and follows live current events with Google News. Not to forget the spectacular Google Earth, which offers a detailed look at Earth from space, on top of which is Google Maps, a cartographic and itinerary search system. It’s difficult to imagine what internet search today would be without Google!



Two students in a garage


Google germinated in 1996 as a Stanford student’s research project. Larry Page, aka “Backrub” was convinced that the number of entering links (or backlinks) towards a site would measure the importance and usefulness of a site. The 24-year-old wanted to create a tool to quickly list them. He was joined by another student, Sergei Brin, who was then interested in “datamining”.


It was in working with their results they had the idea to apply their results to a search engine. To evoke the infinite quantity of information which their system would index, they called it “Google”, in reference to googol, 1 followed by hundred billions zeros. At first, they put the engine only on campus, but its reputation for speed and the relevance of its results were fast spread by word of mouth. At the beginning of 1998, Google processed 10,000 requests daily and indexed 60 million URLs. In 2000, they reached a billion.


It was former Sun Microsystems CEO Andy Bechtolsheim who first backed them financially with a 100,000-dollar check - towards a company which still didn’t exist. After registering the head office of their start-up in the garage of a friend in Palo Alto, the two “Google boys” cashed the cheque and canvassed family and friends to kickstart the project.



In 1998, the bet seemed won: Online PC Magazine appointed Google as one of 100 best sites of the year. Users followed suit in 2000 by granting Google their first Webby prize. The company, too big for the garage, began a series of moves before becoming established in the legendary Googleplex, the imposing group HQ in Mountain View, north California.



A “research lab” on the side


Google management likes recalling its modest history and the “lab” aspect of the company. According to them, it’s one of the keys to their success. “Certainly, the start-up grew up”, said Anne-Gabrielle Dauba-Pantanacce of Google France. “But we want to keep our research lab side”, she added.



Brin and Page, for example, slip on white overalls routinely for meetings with engineers, or the executive board. To encourage the evolution and creation of new products and services, engineers are encouraged to spend 20 % of their work time on personal projects, explained Gabrielle Dauba-Pantanacce.



Sometimes this creativity results in ambitious partnerships, such as the one recently concluded with Nasa. Sometimes it results, on the contrary, in gags, such as the jokes the site reveals to users every April 1st: MentalPlex, a tool which allows Google to read your thoughts and to guess your request, is an example or Google Romance, to find your soulmate using the search engine …



The group also displays surprising strategies occasionally to entice the best researchers: in 2006, they posted the following equation on a California route 101 billboard: “{first 10-digit prime found in the consecutive digits of e}.com”.


No other indications, not even the group’s logo. Curious math students who solved the problem found a website with a series of mathematical problems which, once resolved correctly, resulted in an interview with Google.


Even the initial public offering of the company in 2004, was “very particular, with a price fixed by bids”, said Dauba-Pantenacce. The bet appears to have succeeded, with Google shares dealing well with the current financial crisis. On October 17th, on of the worst days of the market, Google was valued in 373, 92 dollars. In 2008, the turnover of the group increased by 31 % as compared to the previous year, reaching 5.54 billion dollars.




Projects everywhere  


Since its creation Google distinguished itself from rivals with its will to launch projects everywhere, to touch everything. “Google has the means to invest in an idea, even if it’s not instantly profitable, by saying it will probably be useful later”, said Daniel Glazman, founder of Internet programming company Disruptive Innovations.


Like their purchase of Keyhole, a failing company which became Google Earth. In 2004 it was a risky bet. Barely two years later, the American army used this free tool to help victims of hurricane Katrina.


In 2008, in a quite another field, they joined Radiohead to create a music video with only data, without using a camera.


This diversity is without doubt the strength of Google, but also makes for some interesting failures. To those who blame them for rushing headlong without strategy, the “Google Boys” answer that it’s all rather worked out well so far. “We don’t often talk of strategy… because that is strategic”, explained Page to the Time magazine in 2006. “I prefer that people think that we do not know where we are going, rather than inform the competition about our projects”, he said.



Convinced that one of their main advantages is the effect of surprise, the group is discreet about its forthcoming projects. The most curious can always check out Google Labs for a sniff of their latest projects …


Date created : 2008-10-27