Six simple letters on a plain white page—that is the face of the most powerful technology company in the world. Revered, envied and sometimes scorned. Google Inc.’s co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page started the company as graduate students in 1998. It has made them astoundingly rich. Today, they stand atop an empire, audacious, ambitious and often controversial.
What makes them ‘audacious’?
For starters, the name itself. “When we were trying to name Google, we went through thousands of them. We settled on Google because it sounds fun and it also means a large number—that is, one followed by a hundred zeroes,” explains Page.
Food for thought: Google employees gather for lunch in the courtyard of the firm’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. The Web giant’s cafes offer the best of the world’s cuisine to its employees, free of cost. Erin Lubin / Bloomberg
In 1998, the thought of downloading the World Wide Web was audacious in itself. But what started out as a research project has now become a high tech juggernaut. In the late 1990s when other Web search engines such as Lycos, AOL, Yahoo and AltaVista crammed their websites with links and ads, Google’s plain blank look was actually a problem for the students who first tested it.
Google’s vice-president for search products and user experience, Marissa Mayer, says, “They would go to Google.com, load up the page and it would be blank. And they would just wait and 15 seconds later we would be wondering, ‘what are they waiting for’, ‘maybe, they are thinking of searches’. 30 seconds later or even 45 seconds later, we would think we need to ask what are they waiting for and the answer would be the same all 16 times a day, ‘we are waiting for the rest of it’.”
Their working style is a culture by itself, too. Google’s success comes from attracting the best possible employees and then making work irresistible and that means making it lots of fun. There are gyms if you are restless, massages if you are stressed and then there is the food.
“We have a team of seven executive chefs here in Mountain View (California) and we have about 18 cafes in all that we all oversee,” says one of the Google chefs.
There is Indian cuisine as well as Sushi, no problem. Google has it all and best of all, everything is free, for employees that is; it costs Google a fortune.
As chief executive officer Eric Schmidt puts it, “We work hard to maintain that—what you see is the culture where people feel that they can build things and accomplish what they want and ultimately people stay in companies because they can achieve something.”
What makes them ‘ambitious’?
Mayer puts it aptly, “There are two key factors in my decision (to join Google). One is that you usually work with the smartest people you can find and, two, you should do things that you are not ready to do.”
For Google, product and user were at the core. A basic search engine crawls the Internet bouncing from link to link indexing as many Web pages as it can. When you do a search it tracks your results based on the number of times the search term appears on each side.
Google’s masterstroke was to track every website’s importance by counting the number of other websites linking back to it. Google figured the more links to a site the more important it must be and the higher it should show up in your search result.
They called this approach page rank after Larry Page and it worked brilliantly.
Journalist John Battelle says, “I was being told—hey, you have to check this out and when you go there and use it for the first time it just works and something happens between your ears that makes that brand valuable to you instantly.”
Google is no longer a start-up. Larry Page and Sergey Brin are no longer graduate students living on fast foods and credit cards. Today, they are worth $15 billion (Rs69,750 crore) each. According to Forbes magazine, Brin, who immigrated from Russia at age 6, never thought Google could be successful.
And now, they are venturing into the mobile territory. Mobile phone use is skyrocketing, at least 4 billion worldwide, with a billion sold in 2008 alone. Brin wants to make sure Android, Google’s operating system for mobile phones, get a big piece of that market.
And, finally, what makes them ‘controversial’?
Kevin Bankston, of Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, points out, “People turn to the search engine box and admit things to it that they would not admit to their doctor, to their shrink, their priest, their wife or husband and without a thought that all of these queries are being stored.”
Google keeps every search query you type into the box for ever.
But Schmidt explains, “We do not use it and we do not misuse it. We could misuse it, but if we did we will quickly become much less powerful because everyone will flee to our competitors. So part of the answer to the criticism implied by your question is that if we broke our trust with our end users they would leave and then we wouldn’t be very important.”
What next for Google?
A little over a decade ago, most people hadn’t even heard of Google. It is a stunning indication of how one firm, once an unknown start-up, has moved to so many aspects of our lives.
Research for the phrase, ‘Google’s future’, and you will get more than a million results but none of them can answer it’s most pressing question. Could it become too big for its own good and how much more can it improve its search engine? Can it continue to protect our privacy and its future? One thing is for sure, this is Google and everyone will be watching.
Edited excerpts of CNBC’s discussion with the folks at Google.