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Google at 20: A Brief History of a Global Tech Giant

Ross Kelly

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Google Medical Data

Google turns 20 today, so we’re taking a brief look at the history of the company. From a Stanford University dormitory to the top of the tech pile. 

As the world becomes increasingly connected and our reliance on the web grows, so too does Google’s influence; you cannot escape it.

More than one billion people across 100 countries use Google, which is thought to be worth in excess of £500 billion. Every month, more than 100 billion searches are performed using Google with a yearly rate of at least two trillion – truly staggering numbers.

Since its inception in the mid-1990s, however, it has grown to become more than just a search engine. The company has transformed digital advertising, has an incredible influence on your day-to-day online activities and is a major player in the smartphone, electronics and self-driving vehicle markets.

To celebrate the firm’s 20th anniversary today, Digit explores its meteoric rise from a dormitory in Stanford University to the very top of the tech world.

Humble Beginnings

Google unofficially started in 1996 when founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin (who were studying at Stanford University) began work on revolutionising search engines. At the time, search engines indexed web pages and returned them in an order that highlighted the best keyword matches in search queries.

Page and Brin, however, opted to create a more streamlined system. Starting work on BackRub (Google’s original name), the two founders most likely did not realise they had started a web revolution.

BackRub started with search queries. However, it ranked pages in the listing based on the number of backlinks. To this day, the BackRub PageRank system remains a key component of Google’s search ranking.

By 1997, the BackRub name had been shelved and replaced with Google, and in 1998 Page and Brin formed Google Inc with a $100,000 investment from Andy Bechtolsheim. From inside Susan Wojcicki’s garage, Google began its long journey.

1998-2002

Bechtolsheim wasn’t alone in his backing of Google. In the same year, the company raised more than $1 million from a number of investors, including Jeff Bezos, Ram Shriram and David Cheriton. Multiple smaller investments began flowing into the company throughout this period as the profile of the company grew.

In the following year, Google raised a staggering $25 million that enabled it to move to its now iconic headquarters at Mountain View, California. Before the turn of the millennium, it also tried to sell itself to a highly recognised 90s search engine, Excite.

Excite failed to make an acceptable offer, though, and the proposed deal collapsed.

In 2000, Google began a four-year relationship with Yahoo when it was announced as the company’s search engine provider. Seeing its value, Yahoo attempted to buy Google with a $3 billion offer in 2002. The proposed bid was declined, and two years later the provider agreement between the two firms came to an end.

Yahoo would go on to operate its own search engine for some six years until switching to Microsoft’s Bing in 2010.

Non-English versions of the site were also made available that year, with the global popularity of the search engine growing, ensuring multi-lingual accessibility would become key to Google’s global dominance in the coming years.

2002-2006

The early to mid-noughties was undoubtedly an exciting time for Google. In 2004, the company went public, raising more than $1.67 billion in the process. The company also debuted Gmail, the web-based email service that has since grown to become one of the world’s most popular.

At that time the service offered what was considered to be an impressive one gigabyte of storage – how times have changed. The early beginnings of Google Books also appeared in the form of Google Print.

One year later in 2005, the firm launched Google Maps and Google Earth; arguably one of the greatest game-changing moves in the company’s history. Google Maps has grown to become a highly important tool in day-to-day life. Can’t find that coffee shop? Google Maps. Found yourself lost while driving? Google Maps.

2006 saw more changes at tech giant with the launch of a censored version of its search engine in China. This move drew criticism at the time due to its apparent breach of principle.

Historically, the company’s mission had been to make the world’s information freely available. With its strict regulation of web activity, China hardly seemed a good fit with this mantra. The same year saw the acquisition of YouTube, another major online player.

2006-2010

Google’s continued growth showed no signs of stopping from 2006 to 2010. In the space of four years, the company began distributing the Android operating system to developers. New features such as StreetView were added to Google Maps and the Chrome web browser made its first appearance. Today, Chrome is one of the most popular web browsers on earth and dominates the US market.

Google began work on its first self-driving car project in 2009. Following years of experimentation, the unit was renamed Waymo in 2016 and became a Google subsidiary. It is currently one of the leading figures within the autonomous vehicle sector.

At the end of the decade, Google released the Nexus One, the company’s first self-branded phone which ran on Android OS. In addition to this, its involvement in China came to a close. The company’s decision to shut down its search engine in mainland China was met with praise.

2010-present

Google Glass, Google Home Assistant and the arrival of Sundar Pichai are all notable moments for Google in the past eight years. Google Home smart speakers are a household item for millions worldwide following their release in 2016.

The previous year saw an overhaul at Google when it reorganised into the holding company, Alphabet, Inc. Additionally, Sundar Pichai became the CEO of the company.

It hasn’t been plain sailing for Google in the past couple of years, though. Earlier in 2018, the company had a record-breaking fine imposed by the European Commission.

The EC said the firm had used its Android operating system to illegally “cement its dominant position” in the search market. The fine imposed upon Google’s parent company was a staggering £3.9 billion.

While the company was firmly in the EU’s crosshairs, it also drew criticism from within due to its involvement in a controversial US Military drone project. In an open letter signed by hundreds, academics highlighted the worrying precedent that Google’s involvement in Project Maven sets.

The Google CEO also answered to employees following the announcement that it would once again work with China. After years of its search engine and other products being blocked in China, leaked documents revealed that the firm is planning to introduce a censored version of its product.

Pichai told employees that this was only in an “experimental stage”.

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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