• Technology
  • The Economist

How Good Is Google?

Google is now more than a business: it is a cultural phenomenon. But where will it be in a few years?

If the ultimate measure of impact is to have one’s name become a new verb in the world’s main languages, Google has reason to be proud. When they founded the company five years ago, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, friends at Stanford University, chose a word play on “googol” — the number 1 followed by 100 zeros — because their ambition was to organise the information overload of the internet in a transparent and superior way. These days, singles “google” suitors before agreeing to a date, housewives “google” recipes before cooking, and patients “google” their ailments before visiting doctors. Dave Gorman, a comedian, even has a popular show, the “Googlewhack Adventure” — a Googlewhack being what happens when two words are entered into Google and it comes back with exactly one match.

As search engines go, in other words, Google has clearly been a runaway success. Not only is its own site the most popular for search on the web, but it also powers the search engines of major portals, such as Yahoo and AOL. All told, 75% of referrals to websites now originate from Google’s algorithms. That is power.

For some time now, Google’s board (which includes two of Silicon Valley’s best-known venture capitalists, John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital) has been deliberating how to translate that power into money. They appear to have decided to bring Google to the stockmarket next spring. Bankers have been overheard estimating Google’s value at $15 billion or more. That could make Google Silicon Valley’s first hot IPO since the dotcom bust, and perhaps its biggest ever.

That alone is enough to have some sceptics whispering “Netscape”. Now that the worst of the dotcom hangover is clearing, they wonder, will Google become one of the few valuable internet survivors, joining Amazon and above all eBay? Or will it simply be the next overhyped share sale to make its founders rich only to wither away miserably, either for lack of a sustainably profitable business model, or, like Netscape, because it finds itself in the path of that mighty wrecker, Microsoft?

The Search for Profits

Google, naturally, is determined to avoid Netscape’s fate at all costs. This was why it made Eric Schmidt its chief executive in 2001. Mr Schmidt was 46 at the time — Messrs Brin and Page were in their twenties — and was the boss of Novell, a software firm decimated by Microsoft but given another lease of life under his leadership. He seemed suitably “adult” to turn Google into a money-making machine.

Mr Schmidt understood that the key to monetising all those customer searches (now 200m a day) was to place small, unobtrusive and highly relevant text advertisements alongside Google’s search results. Advertisers like this system because they pay only if web surfers actually click on their links. And consumers either do not mind, or even learn to love these commercial links for their relevance, just as they appreciate the Yellow Pages.

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