The story behind a success always makes for good reading. And, if such a story is presented like a drama, interspersed with audacious ambition, envy, struggle for control, rivalry, lawsuits, accusations, counter-accusations, and some humour, it would most likely make for some very engrossing reading. To top it all, this is not a work of fiction – in fact, it is not even a dramatization of reality. It is a chronicle of events that happened behind the scenes of what in the words of the author is the ‘hottest business, media and technology success of our time’.
The book starts with describing a scene in 2003, where the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, address a high school in Israel. They explain how Google was born.
Page and Brin were PhD students at Stanford University. The idea of Google was born when Page conceived of downloading the entire web on to his computer to try and devise a search program for it. It was an audacious idea. While he had planned to finish the exercise in a week, he could manage only a portion of it even after a year. “So, optimism is important,” Page told his audience, “One must have a healthy disregard for the impossible google serp data.”
It was this optimism that helped Page persist with his plan. He kept downloading the web on to his machine, and Brin helped him mine the data and make sense of it. According to the duo, it took a lot of effort, a lot of night-outs, and a lot of working through holidays.
After this brief prelude-like beginning, the story goes back to the beginning – when Page met Brin.
Page and Brin were both PhD students at Stanford, and they had a lot in common. They were both from families which placed great value on scholarship and academic excellence. They both had fathers who were professors, and mothers whose jobs revolved around computers and technology. Computers, mathematics, and intellectual debates and discussions were part of their genetic codes as well as their day-to-day lives. It was only natural, then, that they got along with each other quite well, and started working together.
They also had an environment that was very conducive to innovation, experimentation and ideation. Stanford is known for churning out several successful technology ventures, including HP and Sun (Sun stands for Stanford University Network). People in Stanford are firm in their belief that sometimes, making a business out of a technological innovation delivers a much greater effect than writing a paper on it.
Also, at the time the two were together, there was a major IT revolution happening. The likes of Netscape were creating waves outside with unprecedentedly huge IPO’s, and the Internet was touted to be the next big thing. As a result, venture capitals were skewed heavily towards funding technological start-ups. These circumstances created a setting ripe for research and innovation relating to the Internet, and Page and Brin believed that a robust search application was the one thing that Internet users most needed.
Search engines prevalent at that time provided service that was far from satisfactory. There were many in operation – the likes of Lycos, Webcrawler, Excite and a few others. All of them fell short. They would only display a slew of results that made little sense to the searcher.
At that time, another duo from Stanford was running a company which they had named ‘Yahoo’. They devised a better search algorithm, by creating an alphabetized directory of Web Pages. Also, another new search engine called AltaVista came up. Its search algorithm was based, like other search engines, on the number of times the key word figured in the web page, but it displayed results using the now popular concept of web links. A link, essentially, is a kind of a pointer to another web page.
The idea of using links for a search engine excited Brin and Page. They started thinking of it on an entirely new dimension.
Coming from families that treasured academic research, Page and Brin looked at links as something akin to citations in academic research. In academia, a paper was considered good if it had citations. The more the citations, the better the paper. Also, not all citations were equal. Citations from quality sources enhanced the paper’s value.
Using the analogy, the pair developed their search algorithm, called PageRank. It depended, among other things, the number of links that pointed to the web page. The more the links, the higher the rank. Also, links from the more renowned websites, such as Yahoo, would carry more weight than a link from a lesser known website.
Initially, the Google Guys named their search engine ‘BackRub’, as it was based on the links pointing backward to the site. However, they eventually decided that they had to come up with a new name. Because it dealt with vast amounts of data, they decided to name it ‘Google’. Googol is a very large number – 1 followed by 100 zeros. ‘Google’, is actually a misspelling of ‘Googol’, something which many people do not know.
Google was first released internally in Stanford. From the beginning, it has maintained a clean and simple homepage, free from flashy animations and the like. It was an instant hit in the Stanford network.
As their database grew, Brin and Page needed more hardware. As they were short of cash, they bought inexpensive parts and assembled them themselves. They also tried all they could to get their hands on unclaimed machines. They did everything they could to keep their hardware cost at a minimum.
Initially, the duo attempted to sell Google to other major web companies like Yahoo and AltaVista. However, both companies could not accept Google, because, among other reasons, they did not believe that search was a vital part of the Web experience.
In the initial days, the Google guys were not sure of the business model. They did not know just how Google could make money. The motto of the company was ‘Don’t be evil’. They believed that advertisements on web pages were evil, and hence wanted to avoid having ads on their webpages. They were hopeful that in the future, other websites would want to use their search engine, and they could profit by charge these websites. They were also relying purely on word-of-mouth for their marketing. They did not advertise at all.
Google’s database kept growing, and they started buying more hardware and recruiting more people. Initially, Google was funded by a $1 million investment by an angel investor named Andy Bechtolsheim. Eventually, though, they ran out of it, and needed more money.
They did not want to go public and raise money like many other companies did, for they had no intentions of letting their information go public, and they also wanted to have full control over the company. The only option, then, seemed to be to approach venture capitalists. The duo was convinced that they could get VC’s to fund them, and at the same time continue to retain their control over the company.
They approached two VC companies, Sequoia and Kleiner Perkins. Both companies were impressed with the idea, and were ready to fund Google. However, because they did not want to give up control, the Google guys demanded that both companies invest jointly in Google.
In Wall Street, two major VC companies would hardly consent to a joint investment in a fledgling firm owned by a couple of unrelenting youngsters. However, due to the inherent attractiveness and workability of their idea, and through help from some of their contacts, the Google guys pulled off a coup that was unheard of. They got the two companies to invest $25 million each, and they still retained full control of Google. The only condition that the two VC’s placed was to hire an experienced industry person to manage their business. The Google guys agreed, hoping that they could push such an appointment to as late a date as possible.
As Google progressed, several improvements came up. The now famous Google Doodle – an image that appears in the Google homepage to signify an important event or to honour a person – started out as a signal to employees that Brin and Page were away. When Brin and Page went to a party called Burning Man, they left an image of a burning man in the homepage to signal to employees that they were away. After this, they experimented with replacing the two O’s of Google with Halloween pumpkins, to signify the festival of Halloween. It was an instant hit with Google’s users. Since then, the logo is often decorated with a doodle to signify or honour important occasions/landmarks/persons.
Google started recruiting people for specific roles. There was an employee dedicated to making doodles, and another to polishing and improving user design. Significantly, they recruited Dr.Jim Reese of Harvard to manage operations. His responsibility was to ensure that Google’s burgeoning hardware requirements were consistently met. Since Google saves a lot of money by buying cheap computers and assembling them themselves, it was important that they be maintained, monitored and managed properly. To ensure reliability, Dr.Reeves spread data over several computers, managed them all from a central system, and used redundancy to insure the company against system crashes. By minimizing hardware costs, and using free to use Linux based operating systems over expensive ones like Windows, Google had earned for itself a major cost advantage.
Google got more and more popular. It won the support and admiration of Danny Sullivan, editor of an influential newsletter focused on Internet search. It had built for itself a very loyal user base that gave feedback on even the slightest of modifications to the site. However, it had yet to come up with a way of making money.
At that time, a company called Overture caught Brin’s attention. Overture was the company that provided the search results that accompanied searches of Yahoo and AOL, among others. The Google guys liked the idea of having ads based on search, rather than flashy and distracting banner ads. However, there was one practice of Overture’s that they did not approve of – Overture guaranteed that if a company paid a certain amount of money, it would find a place among the advertisements. It went directly against their motto of ‘Don’t be evil’.
They decided, therefore, to go it alone. They developed an algorithm for search-based advertising on their own. True to their motto, they ensured that there was a clear demarcation between the actual search results and the advertisements. Like the search results, the advertisements, too, would be ranked. The ranking of the advertisements would be based not only on the amount of money paid, but also on the number of times it is clicked. Hence, popular ads would appear more prominently.
Prices for Google’s ads were fixed through a nonstop auctioning process. Auctions were done for every search phrase. A phrase like ‘investment advice’ would cost a lot more than a phrase like ‘pet food’. Companies started having dedicated employees to carry out Google auctions. There were several subtleties involved. For instance, ‘digital cameras’ would be auctioned for a higher rate than ‘digital camera’, because a user googling ‘digital cameras’ is more likely to buy one.
Google advertising policy was not without its share of problems. Once, an insurance company named Geico filed a lawsuit against Google, on the grounds that it had allowed other companies to bid for its name. A user searching for ‘Geico’ would see in his results all insurance companies that had made a winning bid for it. Geico claimed that Google did not have a right to let Geico’s competition take advantage of searches on its name. Google’s defense was that Geico’s understanding of consumer behavior on the Internet was incorrect. A user googling ‘Geico’ is not necessarily looking only at Geico’s website. Besides, Google was not the publisher of the ads, and it also had systems in place to protect trademarks. It did not allow ads to contain trademarks in their heading or text. Google ended up winning the case.
It has also been alleged that Google’s naming of the advertisement section ‘Sponsored Links’ misleads many users. Many users confuse ads with actual results, and click on them without even knowing they are ads. The ethicality of this lack of clear distinction has often come under question.
With the business model set straight, innovation and new ideas flourished at Google’s expanded office, called the Googleplex. One employee came up with the idea of retrieving a person’s phone number if his name and zip code are entered. Another came up with the idea of auto-correcting spelling mistakes. If, for instance, you misspell a celebrity’s name, Google would automatically correct it and display search results for the corrected name. If a less obvious mistake is made, Google comes up with a “Did you mean…?” link at the top of the page.
Google also launched its Google Image Search, which again was revolutionary. Millions of images are stored in Google’s database and can be retrieved at the click of a mouse.
The Google guys created an infrastructure and a culture inside the Googleplex that would make employees want to stay there for most part of the day – and night. Mean as they were with spending on computer hardware, they spent unrestrainedly when it came to creating the right environment for their employees. There were free meals, unlimited snacks, toys, roller hockey, scooter races, and lots more. Even the buses were equipped with Wi-Fi Internet connectivity, so that employees could be productive even while they commuted.
External happenings also helped Google. The dotcom crash of 2000 left several extremely talented software developers unemployed, giving Google access to a vast talent pool. Also, around that time, Microsoft was facing a legal dispute regarding its anti-competitive practices. This made the image of Microsoft take a beating. Google, with its ‘Don’t be evil’ motto, suddenly overtook Microsoft as the ultimate place for a software developer to be in. The creme-de-la-crème of the software profession started preferring to work in Google.
Google also actively encouraged and fostered innovation inside the Googleplex. Employees were free to spend 20% of their time on innovative tasks that interested him. They did not have to worry about whether it could be made profitable, or have any fear about its acceptance or workability. They could so just work on anything that was of interest to them. Ideas were often discussed in bulletin boards and over lunch. As an idea grew, it would get bigger and bigger. Google also provided the resources to carry out innovation. Out of this culture were born several ideas. An avid reader of news came up with an idea of providing users with multiple sources of news clustered together, to help them analyze and understand news better. Thus was born Google news. Interestingly, unlike Google search results, the Google news results are cramped close together. This denseness is intended to give the user as much news as possible. Ranking is based on relevance, and also the source. Another innovation was Froogle, later renamed Google Product search, which helped users search for retail products to shop.