March 04, 2018

The Story of Google

Google, the popular search engine, has empowered individuals and transformed the way we access information in a manner that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. People “Google” everyday. Life today for most people, especially youngsters, would be unimaginable without Google. Google’s appeal extends across cultures and countries. The search engine’s universal popularity is the result of word-of-mouth, not high profile advertising.

After doing some research, I managed to know the whole history of Google. Today, I’m gonna share that with you. It provides a fascinating account of how great, brilliant minds work. In this case I’m referring to the minds of Google founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

Google’s best kept secret is its expertise in handling computer hardware. Google’s employees assemble and customize all the PCs that the company uses to carry out searches. Google turns inexpensive PCs into computing powerhouses by integrating and stringing them together with patented software and wiring. These customized computers rapidly carry out searches by breaking queries down into tiny parts. These parts are processed simultaneously by comparing them to copies of the Internet that have been indexed and organized in advance. In short, there is no comparable computer network or database in the public or private sector, anywhere in the world.

Brin and Page had early exposure to computers thanks to their highly educated parents, who were comfortable with computers and sophisticated mathematics. As the authors mention, “Scholarship was not just mentioned in their homes, it was treasured.” Education in Montessori schools and proximity of their homes to major universities played a crucial role in shaping the careers of Brin and Page.

The two met in Stanford where they registered for a PhD. Encouraged by their advisor, Rajeev Motwani, a young 30 year old professor, the two became excited about finding ways to locate and extract information from large amounts of data. Locating something on the emerging disorganized Internet in the mid-1990s, was not easy. While studying Alta Vista, a popular search engine of the times, Page noticed that the search result included something called links. Page decided to dig into links and see how they might be used further. He had a hunch that the number of links pointing to a website was a way of ranking that popularity. But all links were not created equal. The sites with most links pointing to them were clearly the most important. This led to the concept of Page Rank. While other search engines relied on matching words in queries with words on web pages, Page Rank provided an extra dimension. It put search results in a logical order for users.

It began with an argument. When he first met Larry Page in the summer of 1995, Sergey Brin was a second-year grad student in the computer science department at Stanford University. Gregarious by nature, Brin had volunteered as a guide of sorts for potential first-years - students who had been admitted, but were still deciding whether to attend. His duties included showing recruits the campus and leading a tour of nearby San Francisco. Page, an engineering major from the University of Michigan, ended up in Brin’s group.

When Page showed up at Stanford a few months later, he selected human-computer interaction pioneer Terry Winograd as his adviser. Soon thereafter he began searching for a topic for his doctoral thesis. It was an important decision. As Page had learned from his father, a computer science professor at Michigan State, a dissertation can frame one’s entire academic career. He kicked around 10 or so intriguing ideas, but found himself attracted to the burgeoning World Wide Web.

Page didn’t start out looking for a better way to search the Web. Despite the fact that Stanford alumni were getting rich founding Internet companies, Page found the Web interesting primarily for its mathematical characteristics. Each computer was a node, and each link on a Web page was a connection between nodes - a classic graph structure. “Computer scientists love graphs,” Page tells me. The World Wide Web, Page theorized, may have been the largest graph ever created, and it was growing at a breakneck pace. Many useful insights lurked in its vertices, awaiting discovery by inquiring graduate students. Winograd agreed, and Page set about pondering the link structure of the Web.

In March 1996, Page pointed his crawler at just one page - his homepage at Stanford - and let it loose. The crawler worked outward from there. Crawling the entire Web to discover the sum of its links is a major undertaking, but simple crawling was not where BackRub’s true innovation lay. Page was naturally aware of the concept of ranking in academic publishing, and he theorized that the structure of the Web’s graph would reveal not just who was linking to whom, but more critically, the importance of who linked to whom, based on various attributes of the site that was doing the linking. Inspired by citation analysis, Page realized that a raw count of links to a page would be a useful guide to that page’s rank. He also saw that each link needed its own ranking, based on the link count of its originating page. But such an approach creates a difficult and recursive mathematical challenge - you not only have to count a particular page’s links, you also have to count the links attached to the links. The math gets complicated rather quickly.

Fortunately, Page was now working with Brin, whose prodigious gifts in mathematics could be applied to the problem. Brin, the Russian-born son of a NASA scientist and a University of Maryland math professor, emigrated to the US with his family at the age of 6. By the time he was a middle schooler, Brin was a recognized math prodigy. He left high school a year early to go to UM. When he graduated, he immediately enrolled at Stanford, where his talents allowed him to goof off. The weather was so good, he told me, that he loaded up on nonacademic classes - sailing, swimming, scuba diving. He focused his intellectual energies on interesting projects rather than actual course work.

Page and Brin’s breakthrough was to create an algorithm - dubbed PageRank after Page - that manages to take into account both the number of links into a particular site and the number of links into each of the linking sites. This mirrored the rough approach of academic citation- counting. It worked. In the example above, let’s assume that only a few sites linked to the teenager’s site. Let’s further assume the sites that link to the teenager’s are similarly bereft oflinks. By contrast, thousands of sites link to Intel, and those sites, on average, also have thousands of sites linking to them. PageRank would rank the teen’s site as less important than Intel’s - at least in relation to IBM.

When, the search engine was made available to students, faculty and administrators in Stanford, its clean uncluttered look received a lot of appreciation. As the database and number of users grew, Brin and Page needed new computers. With little cash with them, they bought parts, built their own machines and moved around the loading dock in Stanford, looking for unclaimed computers. The duo’s PhD advisors provided them $10,000 from the Stanford Digital libraries project. Page’s dorm room effectively became a data centre.

The Google search engine took more factors into account than any other search engine on the market. It did not just count words or links and deliver results. It combined information about words and links with other variables in new and interesting ways that produced better search results. The search engine was sufficiently intelligent to realize that it did matter whether words or phrases on web pages were close together or far apart, what their font size was, whether they were capitalized or in lower case type. Google’s founders also realized that their search engine needed greater computing power than that of any other search engine then available. Both hardware and software were important and had to be carefully intertwined and optimized. Brin and Page focused on the right mathematical equations and multiple personal computers to create a modern assemble line to gather, index and present information. Page explained to a group the modus operandi, “We crawl the web which means we go out and download the entire web. We download roughly 100 pages per second. This is fairly complicated to do reliably. We actually store all the web pages we download because it is very good for research. We have the web on disks across the hall. It promises to be very useful to have research to have this around.”

As they scaled up operations, funding became crucial. The first break for Brin and Page came when angel investor Andy Bechtolsheim wrote a cheque for $100,000 after making a remark: “This is the single best idea I have heard in years. I want to be part of this.” Brin and Page decided to take a leave of absence from the PhD program to focus3 on the business full time. The $100,000 cheque signaled the credibility of the project. Thanks to contributions from close friends, the kitty swelled quickly to $ 1,000,000. On June 7, 1999, less than one year after they took leave from Stanford, Brin and Page announced that two leading Silicon Valley venture capitalists, Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia capital had, as equal partners, together agreed to invest $25 million in Google. The founders had successfully structured the deal without giving away control and power.

Gradually, the vision of Google crystallized. Brin and Page challenged the prevailing conventional wisdom that all purpose websites would be the preferred gateway to the Internet. As specialization increased, Google’s founders felt these sites would fail to meet particular or specialized needs. The two were convinced that search was the most important long term problem to be addressed. They had complete clarity about becoming dominant in search, just at the time when others were abandoning it and calling it a commodity.

Page and Brin realized the need to attract talent. They sold Google to prospective recruits on the basis of cool technology, stock options, free snacks and drinks. The company’s vision of developing software that would make an impact on millions of people, was also very appealing.

During the dotcom crash of 2000, Google went on a hiring spree even as other companies retrenched heavily. Google found it had access to outstanding software engineers and mathematicians who suddenly found themselves unemployed, holding on to a pile of worthless stock options. Even as competitors struggled, Google moved to a larger headquarters in Mountain View.

Google continued its efforts to maintain a congenial environment where talent could flourish. Employees enjoyed free meals, juices, snacks, on site laundry, hair styling dental and medical care, car wash, fitness facilities with personal trainers and even a professional masseuse. Buses in which employees commuted between home and office were equipped with wireless Internet access. This ensured that employees, worked on their way to office and reached office without tension/frustration.

By the end of 1999, Google was averaging 7 million searches per day but its revenues were small. Google depended mostly on licensing deals. Advertisements were a potential source of revenue but Page and Brin realized that ad funded search engines invariably became biased towards advertisers. They decided to follow a new revenue4 model. While search results would remain free, Google would make money by selling unobtrusive, targeted advertising to businesses on the results pages. Google decided to maintain a clear distinction between search results and ads. The company also decided to keep the home page free of ads. To maintain a high quality of user experience, Google decided against any pop ups or graphics. The ads would be brief, look identical, just a headline, a link and a short description. Advertisers could sign up online themselves. Instead of displaying an ad from the vendor willing to pay the most, Google renewed its ads based on a formula that took into account both how much someone offered to pay and how frequently computer users clicked on the ad. In short, Google trusted users to rank the ads. Consumer pull rather than business push determined where ads appeared.

Google’s popularity continued to expand due to word of mouth. It became available in various languages. Google persuaded other websites to add a Google search box. On June 26, 2000, Google signed an agreement with Yahoo to provide the portal with Google generated search results. This agreement significantly expanded Google’s presence on the web.

In June 2000, Google announced it had become the world’s largest search engine with more than one billion pages in its index of websites. Performing 100 million searches per day, its activities continued to expand. One engineer found a way for searchers to find a phone number on Google by simple entering someone’s name and zip code into the search box. Another came with a way to take care of spelling errors. If a person typed in one of the words incorrectly, the search engine automatically asked, “Did you mean xxx?” Google also launched Image Search, a service that included millions of photographs and other graphics. This facility showed that the Google search model had major expansion opportunities. As the business expanded, for the first time in its history, Google earned an annual profit of $7 million.

Google attained new financial heights in 2002. America online accepted Google as its search engine of choice on May 1. Winning the AOL business against Inktomi, which provided search results, and Overture which provided search related ads had not been easy for Google. Google provided a large financial guarantee running to millions of dollars to swing the deal in its own favour. Here Brin and Page had their say and were more willing to take more risk than CEO Eric Schmidt.

Google made money every time a computer user clicked on one of the ads it displayed. But instead of fixing in advance, the cost of running an ad, on Google and its affiliated sites, was determined in a nonstop online auction. Google operated a sophisticated 24 hour market place where thousands of words and phrases that people searched for everyday were bought and sold like goods and services.

In 2002, Google generated sales of $440 million and profits of $100 million. Virtually, all the profits were generated from people clicking ads on the right side of the search results pages and the pages of partners and affiliates. Google fully leveraged the “network” effect. The more computer users who clicked on the Google ads, the more money website owners made. The more money they made, the more other sites were willing and eager to add Google search and ad technology to their offerings. The bigger the network grew, the harder it became for everyone to challenge it. In short, Google rapidly emerged as the #1 destination for displaying ads online.

Google software engineers spent at least 20% of their time working on whatever projects interested them. This helped Google to come up with breakthrough ideas. Google News enabled people to access news items effortlessly. Google Alerts was developed as an automatic way for people to track specific topics of interest by email. Alerts helped people to keep track of a particular company, issue, individual or a subject in the news.

Another service, Froogle enabled people to locate items they wanted to purchase and collect information about comparative products and prices. Rhyming with Google, Froogle conveyed the keen desire of consumers to hunt for value. Page and Brin wanted to make a big splash with their email service Gmail. The founders realized it had to be radically better than the email services already on offer. They decided to give away one free gigabyte of storage on Google’s own network with each Gmail account. Gmail also enabled people to find emails instantly, without having to think about storing or sorting them. A Gmail search was as fast and accurate as Google search. Unlike the search engine, Gmail was designed to make money even during the test phase. Page and Brin hit upon the idea of putting small ads on the right side of Gmail that were contextually relevant, i.e., triggered by words contained in the emails.7 Initially, politicians and privacy groups attacked the company and its plans. Gradually, the uproar subsided.

In October 2004, Google launched desktop search, a fast, free, easy way for people to find information of all kinds stored in their own computers as quickly as they could search the Internet. This innovation closed the gap between the accuracy and speed of search on the Internet and that on PCs. Google described Desktop as a “photographic memory for your computer.” Google Desktop embarrassed Microsoft by enabling millions of computer users to find misplaced files stored using Microsoft’s programs. There was also no need to store files into folders and directories. Google also launched a product Mini that could search up to 100,000 internal documents. Mini was meant for small and medium businesses.

Google also released satellite mapping and navigation services, ways for users to save personal search histories, Google Suggest was a way for the search engine to propose search topics. Google Scholar, a new product helped to locate scientific and academic articles. Google also released quick new ways for computer users to search for stock quotes, taxis and weather conditions. Google Earth enabled computer users to visually fly to any place on the earth with 3 D views along the way. Google also added a way to explore the surface of the moon through moon.google.com and later, earth.google.com was also created by them which is now being transformed for VR applications.