Google Becomes a Teenager

Sept 4, 1998

Alta Vista reigns supreme as a search engine. Yahoo dominates the directory world. AOL appears impregnable, and is still two years away from a valuation of $166 Billion dollars at the Time-Warner merger date. IBM releases a laptop with a 300 Mhz processor and a 4GB hard drive. A fast Internet connection runs at 56kbps, and 2 math geeks from Stanford file papers to incorporate Google Inc.

Google hit the ground with one key breakthrough… the concept of PageRank. (a pre-cursor of PageRank was patented by Baidu founder Robin Li in 1996). Where existing search engines had ranked pages by the in-page content, PageRank used what Google called the “democracy” of the web to rank pages based on the number of inbound links to those pages. Suddenly a search for newspapers would yield the New York Times as a result. The New York Times website did not identify itself as a “newspaper”, hence an Alta Vista search was more likely to yield a website that ranked the circulation of newspapers.

The concept was a near instant success, and Google grew rapidly as a search engine, although without any clear strategy for profitability. In 2003, the company launched Google Adwords… one of the most remarkable money machines ever created. To this day, 97% of Google’s revenue comes from Advertising.

The advertising revenue gusher has resulted in Google’s emergence as a dominant web force. From Gmail to Google Maps to the Android phones, it seems difficult to imagine an Internet sans Google.

Happy Birthday Google. We suspect the teen years will be challenging.

Google’s 10K filing with the SEC contains 12 pages of Risk Factors affecting their business. Yet it’s the unknown unknowns that may be most threatening.

PageRank as initially described is obsolete. It didn’t take long for website operators to understand that they could artificially inflate the number of inbound links to their sites through automated blog comments, creation of link farms, and any number of other methods of varying degrees of ethical merit. Google has responded with improved algorithms that attempt to measure the value and relevance of how sites link to each other. Most recently, in a response to the perceived threat of Facebook and MSN joining together to use crowd-sourcing as a ranking factor, Google has increasingly relied on a new “special sauce”…  user behavior. The major search engines are all moving towards popularity as a key ranking component. It’s akin to an “Ask the Audience” lifeline. They may be right… but not always.

Google’s revenue model is a tripod. It won’t stand up if it’s missing one of the legs… Search, Adwords, or Doubleclick. Google would undoubtedly like to deliver the “best” search results, but more importantly Google must deliver the “most” search results to continue to thrive.

Disruptive technologies like Wajam, Friendfinder, or Rockmelt may do a more pleasing job of basing search results on user activity, peer groups, and/or popularity. Facebook at the moment has captured a generation, and Facebook is actively pursuing search technology. It remains possible that a massive privacy failure could destroy Google’s reputation.

It’s possible that the real Web 2.0 might come down to a new method of delivering search results in some fashion that is qualitatively ranked. How might that work?

  • Self-assessed IQ compared to reading levels on destination sites.
  • Fee based search engines (user fees for human review. Not advertiser fees)
  • The web could evolve into two parallel ecosystems (a populist broadband info-foraging, infotainment channel, along with a payment based information system)
  • Accreditation – (submission to professional review panels resulting in endorsement of a website’s content and corresponding rank benefits)
  • A new portal model that is based around member review
  • The Holy Grail. An AI breakthrough that grades websites on literacy, accuracy, and importance.

We live in accelerated times. It would be a massive mistake to believe that Google’s current dominance equates to assured dominance, or even existence 10 years hence.

The most certain advice we can offer for your own website, is to build something exceptional. Be guided by the needs and demographics of your users, and by your own singular vision of what you would like to accomplish. Most importantly… assess the past, but imagine the future.

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